When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them two commandments: (1) to tend and keep the garden, and (2) to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit. Both of these commandments were ways of practising asceticism. There were further instances of asceticism in the Old Testament, for example, with Jonah and the Ninevites.
In the New Testament, we read about the ascetical life of St John the Baptist. Christ Himself fasted for forty days prior to starting his ministry, and at other times, he would retreat at night to pray. He had stated that his followers were to fast as well (Matthew 9:15). The early Christians also gave emphasis to fasting and prayer (e.g., Acts 10:30, 13:2-3, 27:21). Asceticism was taken up in full fervour by those who left the cities to go to the deserts as monks, nuns or hermits. Countless Saints have been formed by the ascetic tradition, which has been preserved in the Orthodox Church.
But what is asceticism? Asceticism consists of spiritual labours that include prayer, fasting, prostrations, vigils, hardships or canons of various sorts, and contemplation. Acts of asceticism combine physical undertakings in conjunction with focusing the heart and mind towards God. Why fast? Why subject the body to such exercises? How does asceticism help? And is it just for monks and nuns? The purpose of our lives is deification, which means to become saints. In order to be deified, we need to be illumined with Christ. And in order to be illumined, we need to be cleansed from our spiritual stains; those blotches on our souls separate us from the love of God.
Those stains are our sins; our bad habits and evil inclinations. Ascetic practices are the methods of cleansing our hearts. They are our gymnasium; the training program for the spiritual Olympics, which is the great and final judgement. They are the true and trusted method of cleansing the body, mind, heart and soul. Asceticism is the antidote to the idolatries of materialism and egotism that pervades our contemporary life.
Asceticism is not the goal of the spiritual life but simply the method. Asceticism is not about building “points” or achievements of spiritual feats; such an approach often leads to pride. Instead, it is the product of our repentance. We remember the example of Zacchaeus, whose repentance was realised though his almsgiving and hence his personal deprivation. And just as an athlete requires a coach to guide them to train and preparing correctly, any ascetical endeavour requires spiritual coaching. These coaches are our spiritual fathers.
Without such guidance, our ascetical efforts are likely to miss the mark. Whilst monks and nuns have very specific methods of asceticism, we too can benefit from the ascetical phronema, or mindset. We can try and live simply, without excesses. We can try to observe the prescribed fasts of the Church. We can attend Church services as much as possible. We can practise almsgiving. We can familiarise ourselves with the prayer rope (κοµποσκοίνι) and the Jesus Prayer. And as stated, these efforts need to be guided by our spiritual father.
When done properly, asceticism gives us the wings to soar into the embrace of God’s love. We thus pray that the good Lord inspires and guides us to espouse an appropriate ascetical phronema. Amen.