The Essence and Meaning of Asceticism (Part II)

Icon of the Mother of God "the Joyful"

Icon of the Mother of God "the Joyful"

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

by His Eminence Archbishop Averky (Taushev)

The fulfillment of the evangelical commandments, or the performing of good works, is an essential foundation for the spiritual life. One who disregards the fulfillment of the commandments and does not perform good works (works of charity) is alien to true spiritual life. However, the evil habits and sinful disposition of the souls that live in us resist the fulfillment of the commandments and the performance of good works. Every time we would like to perform some good work, we must overcome and suppress in ourselves one evil habit or another that protests against the good work we would like to accomplish. In this manner, a battle emerges in the soul between good aspirations and evil habits. 

Here is what has already long ago been ascertained by experience. The greater our good works, and the more often we perform them, the easier it becomes to overcome evil habits; they are weakened by the increased frequency of our good works and are less able to counteract our good will--which, to the contrary, is increasingly strengthened by good works. An obvious conclusion can be drawn from this he who desires success in the spiritual life must by all possible means force himself to perform good works as often and as varied as possible. He must constantly practice the performance of good works--that is, works of love for God and works of love for one's neighbor, or such works as would demonstrate that we are indeed striving to love God and neighbor with true evangelical love.

This constant practice of performing good works bears the name of "asceticism," and one who practices the performance of good works by forcing himself is called an "ascetic." Inasmuch as asceticism is the foundation of the spiritual life and its primary instrument, the essence of the spiritual life is itself normally called "askesis."

It is now clear just how greatly the true understanding of asceticism differs from secular's false understanding. Later on, we shall see where this false and distorted secular understanding of asceticism comes from. We have already said that the performance of good works is opposed by evil habits rooted in our soul and body. We must overcome and uproot these evil habits in ourselves, and this is sometimes altogether torturous and accompanied by suffering; this struggle can be quite painful. In any event, when this is expressed outwardly, someone who does not know or understand the spiritual life will indeed fail to comprehend why this is the case or with what intention the "ascetic" is torturing himself and causing himself suffering. Hence arises the false, distorted perception of asceticism as some kind of fanatical monstrosity or self-torture.

Meanwhile, as we have seen, it is above all the practice of performing good deeds, accompanied by the suppression of evil habits, that is called asceticism. The very philosophical interpretation of the word "asceticism" demonstrates that this is the case. This word comes from the Greek askesis, which in its original meaning meant "exercise"; later, it meant a "given way of life, "calling," "trade," "occupation," and finally, in its most removed meaning, "ascetic struggle," "spiritual life," and "monasticism." Therefore, the word "ascetic," having been derived from the Greek askesis, in no way implies a kind of superstitious fanatic occupying himself with self-torture for who knows what reason, as many secular people think. Instead, according to its original meaning, it means a "fighter," as is indicated by a very characteristic analogy used by Saint Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (9:24-27), comparing physical and spiritual exercises in the attainment of one's desired goal: a corruptible crown for physical fighters and an incorruptible crown for spiritual fighters. Further meanings of the word "ascetic" are "struggler," "one engaged in divine contemplation," "recluse," and "monk."

It follows that "asceticism" is nothing other than "spiritual exercise" or "spiritual training," if one may express it analogously with physical, bodily training which is just as essential for those exercising on the spiritual field as bodily training is essential as those exercising on the field of physical contests.

What specifically does this spiritual training consist of?

It consists of continually forcing oneself to perform good works and to suppress the soul's evil habits and aspirations that resist them. This is no easy matter, inasmuch as it is accompanied by strenuous efforts and not infrequently by a martyric battle that the Holy Fathers and ascetics called, not without reason, self-crucifixion, in accordance with the words of Saint Paul: "And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh and its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). The great Apostle to the Gentiles himself, referring to his own personal spiritual experience, speaks vividly and expressively of the difficulties of the battle: "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) nothing good dwells: for to will is present with me; but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (Romans 7:18-25). This eternal duality in man came about when his once healthy nature was damaged by sin, which introduced disorder and disharmony into it. This constant opposition by the law of sin, which lodges in the flesh, makes asceticism necessary. The essence of asceticism consists in constantly forcing oneself, constantly making oneself to do not that which the sin living in us wants to do, but rather that which the law of God, the law of good, requires. Without this, it goes without saying, there can be no success in the spiritual life. (Source: The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society)

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"


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

+Father George