The Essence and Meaning of Asceticism

Martyr Joseph the Presbyter of Persia

Martyr Joseph the Presbyter of Persia

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


What is "asceticism"? What is an "ascetic"? Many secular people among the ranks of modern Christians know the words "ascetic" and "asceticism" by hearsay, but very few have a correct understanding of what these words mean and express. These words ordinarily bring about a kind of superstitious horror in modern people who consider themselves Christians but who are alien to the Church and the spiritual life, being wholly given over to a secular life of distraction.

"Asceticism" in modern secular society is normally perceived as being something extraordinarily gloomy, almost sinister, forever removed from "normal" human life. Many understand asceticism to be a kind of fanatical monstrosity or self-torture, akin to walking barefoot over burning coals or to hanging oneself up by one's ribs--as is done, for example, by Indian yogis and fakirs, to general amazement.

Such a distorted and prejudiced attitude towards the notion of asceticism in modern society demonstrates how far modern Christians have departed from a correct understanding of evangelical doctrine, how far they have "grown worldly," and how alien their understanding has become to the authentic spiritual life to which our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, called not certain selected exceptional persons, but all Christians in general.

One encounters another conception of the expression "ascetic" and "asceticism" in modern society--one closer to the truth, but still too shallow and superficial, far from reaching the full profoundly of these understandings and therefore also essentially incorrect. This view is too one-sided, touching only one less important and less essential side, but leaving without proper attention to the most important thing, the innermost essence of these understandings. So, for example, it is said of a thin person with a pale, haggard face, "he looks like a real ascetic," not at all thinking about why he is thin and has a pale face: from forced or voluntary hunger, from poor nourishment, or from taking upon himself the struggle of abstinence from food. It is not difficult to see how superficial such a judgment is, for it concerns only a person's appearance, how he looks outwardly, leaving without attention his inner constitution, his disposition of spirit. Normally "asceticism" is understood as self-restraint, the restriction of one's natural needs to the possible minimum, but without any thought of why and for what reason this is done; or one may think erroneously and incorrectly that such self-restraint is an end in and of itself for these people, who are some kind of eccentrics voluntarily refraining, for unknown reasons and purposes, from the natural and therefore lawful pleasures that man's bodily nature enjoys. One way or another, we do not encounter a correct understanding of asceticism in modern society. The sole reason for this is that modern society does not live a spiritual life. Someone who does not live a spiritual life will have a difficult time understanding the essence and meaning of asceticism. People who live according to the spirit of this world will never understand the meaning of asceticism, no matter how it is explained to them, but will always have a distorted or partial conception, one suffering from one-sidedness.

Asceticism is something so closely bound up with the spiritual life that without it spiritual life is simply inconceivable. It is, so to speak, the primary instrument of spiritual life. It is, by no means an end in and of itself, but only a means; nonetheless, it is an absolutely necessary means for success in spiritual life. In what does this means consist?


Spiritual life is born in man through faith in God and in His Revelation. However, "faith without works is dead" (Saint James 2:26) and we, as the Apostle Paul testifies, are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). It goes without saying that good works are essential for success in the spiritual life, for they demonstrate the presence of good will in us, without which there is no moving forward; in turn, works themselves strengthen, develop and deepen this good will. Good will attracts God's grace, without which full and decisive success in the spiritual life is unattainable, as a consequence of the profound brokenness inflicted on human nature by sin. It follows that the striving to perform good works is a necessary undertaking for all who desire to live an authentic spiritual life. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven" (St. Matthew 7:21)--to this the Lord Jesus Christ Himself testifies. In His farewell discourse with His disciples at the Mystical (Last) Supper, He decisively stated this condition: "If you love Me, keep My Commandments" (St. John 14:15). (Source: The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society by Archbishop Averky (Taushev).

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry),
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George