Types of Religious Lives – 4: Ascetic piety

The ascetic type of religious life is not unique to Christianity. It has existed at all times and in the history of absolutely every religion. This by itself shows that it is the expression of some essential characteristics of the human psyche. Thus Christianity is not alone in being characterized by the presence of asceticism. Asceticism is a common characteristic of Hinduism and Islam and is present also in ancient paganism. Moreover, asceticism was a typical feature of the nonreligious milieu so characteristic of nineteenth-century revolutionary movements. One could even say that those periods in the life of the Church which have not been imbued with asceticism have been periods of decline and decay, stagnant and undistinguished. It might also be said that even periods of secular history which have not borne the imprint of asceticism have given evidence of sterility and a lack of creative talent. Since religious life demands of man sacrifice in the name of higher spiritual values, it is always ascetic. At the same time, at its deepest, creative life is also a way of asceticism, since it also demands total sacrifice in the name of higher creative values. It can be said that asceticism has never died out within the Church. There have been periods when it was dormant, when it was the achievement only of solitary souls, while the most common and the most characteristic type of religious life was actually anti-ascetic.

Bearing this in mind, it seems to follow that it is almost impossible to speak about the ascetic type of piety on the same basis as the other types which are more or less elective, whereas asceticism touches upon the eternal depths of religious life. But apart from such genuine and eternal asceticism, there is another extraordinary phenomenon about which we must speak and which we must isolate and distinguish somewhat from the ascetic tendency in general.

This special ascetic type has its roots not in Christianity but rather in the Eastern religions and has entered Christianity as a sort of a special influence from these religions, modifying the original understanding of asceticism. The difference does not lie in the methods of carrying out the ascetic ideal in life. These can be of various kinds, but all these variations are applicable everywhere and do not point to a basic difference in their inner purpose. The basic differences are to be found in what motivates an individual to enter upon the path of asceticism. There can be any number of motivations, many of which are, in varying degrees, incompatible with Christianity. There are even motivations which are in radical contradiction to Christianity. We will start with these.

These are especially characteristic of Hinduism, and on their basis the yogis have arisen. These days they sound like the fundamental principles of all kinds of occult teachings, of theosophy and anthroposophy. Their aim is the acquisition of spiritual power. Asceticism is a known system of psycho-physical exercises which control and modify a person’s normal behavior and are directed toward the attainment of special attributes of power over the soul and over nature. It is possible, by determined and repeated efforts, to subject the body to the will. One can achieve tremendous psychic changes within oneself and a mastery over matter and spirit. Just as a gymnast must exercise to achieve dexterity, just as a wrestler must follow a specific regimen to develop his muscular strength, just as a singer must practice scales in order to perfect his voice, so must an ascetic of this type follow specific directions, must exercise, must repeat the same routine over and over, maintain a special diet, sensibly schedule his time, curb his habits, order his life — and all this to develop to the maximum those forces with which he has been endowed by nature.

The task of such asceticism is determined by the principle of consolidating one’s natural talents, developing them and being able to apply them. It does not look for any kind of transcendence, nor does it expect the inspiration of any kind of supernatural power. It neither considers this nor believes in it. Above it at a certain level a curtain-like firmament is tightly stretched, and there is no way to pass beyond it. But it knows that in this circumscribed world of nature not everything is fully utilized, that there is tremendous potential, that it is possible, within its confines, to attain power and control over all living and existing things, with but a single, limited exception — over all, that is, that is found beneath that tightly drawn, impenetrable firmament of heaven. Nature’s powers are immense, but even they have their limits. For an occult asceticism of this kind there exists no unlimited or inexhaustible source of power, and thus its task is to accumulate, consolidate, preserve, expand and utilize all natural possibilities. And on this path tremendous achievements are possible.

What answer can be given to this particular form of spiritual naturalism? The only thing in this world more powerful than this is the Church’s teaching about spiritual poverty, about the spending, the squandering of one’s spiritual powers, about the utmost impoverishment of the spirit. The only definition of self which is more powerful than it are the words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Although these words in themselves define both the essence of the Christian soul and the whole of the Christian response to the natural powers of the human being, there is no doubt but that an occult relationship to asceticism which is contrary to Christianity has been introduced into our piety by way of ancient Eastern influences, through Syria and her particular type of religiosity. There is no need to overrate this influence of asceticism on Christianity, but nonetheless, it exists.

There is also another respect in which asceticism can cease to be a method for attaining higher spiritual values and become an end in itself. An individual may carry out one or another form of ascetic exercise not because it frees him from something or because it offers him something, but simply because it is challenging and demands an effort. It provides him nothing in the outer world, nor does it contribute anything to the content of his spiritual experience, nor does it advance him on his inner path. It is unpleasant for him to limit himself to one particular sphere — so it is in the name of this unpleasantness that he must do this. The surmounting of an unpleasantness, as the only goal, exercise for the sake of exercise, is at best a working-out of a simple submission to disciplinary challenges and is, of course, a distortion of the ascetic path.

All of the above are mere trifles when compared with the fundamental conflict of world view which now characterizes Christianity. This conflict concerns the most essential, the most fundamental understanding of the goal of the Christian life and divides, as it were, the Christian world into two basic points of view. I am speaking here of the salvation of the soul.

There is no doubt but that the salvation of the soul is the mature fruit of a true and authentic Christian life. The Church crowns her saints and martyrs, her passion-bearers and confessors with the incorruptible crown of eternal life. It promises Paradise, the Kingdom of heaven and eternal blessedness. The Church teaches that the Kingdom of heaven is taken by violence, by force. This is confessed by Christians of all convictions and persuasions. And as a result, the question of the salvation of the soul proves a sword which cuts through the whole spiritual world of Christianity. Here we find two completely different conceptions which lead to different moral laws, to different standards of conduct, etc. It would be difficult to deny that both concepts have notable and saintly champions, that both views enjoy incontrovertible authority within the experience of the Church.

There have been whole periods when Christian asceticism has been colored by one or the other shade of understanding. Both schools have their systems, their principles and their practical rules. Open up the massive volumes of the Philokalia, read the Paterikon, listen — even in this day — to sermons about ascetic Christianity. You will see at once that you have there a serious school of asceticism, with a massive weight of tradition. You need only to accept its ordinances and follow its path. But what is it like? What are its teachings?

Someone who bears in himself all the stain of Adam’s sin and is called to salvation through the blood of Christ has before him just one goal: the salvation of his soul. By itself this goal determines everything for him. It determines his hostility toward anything that stands in the way of salvation. It defines all the means used to attain it. A human being here on earth is placed, as it were, at the start of an endless path toward God. Everything is either a hindrance or a help along that path. In essence there are two polar entities: the eternal Creator of the world, the Redeemer of my soul, and this miserable soul of mine which must strive toward him. What are the means for progress along this path? The first step is the ascetic mortification of one’s flesh. It is prayer and fasting. It is the rejection of the values of this world and of all attachment to them. It is obedience, which mortifies the sinful will just as fasting mortifies the sinful, passionate flesh.

From the point of view of obedience, all the movements of the soul and the whole complex of external activities which are the responsibility of that particular person must be examined. He cannot decline to do them, for he is obliged to carry them out conscientiously if they are given to him as an obedience. But he should not immerse his soul in them completely, since the soul should be filled with one thing only: the striving for its own salvation. The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels — this is a kind of a huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ — I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put into practice virtues and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love — and we must love.

That love should be used as a standard is self-evident: it is the measure of all things. But while I love I must remember at all times that the fundamental objective of the human soul is to be saved: to the extent that love assists me in my salvation, to that extent it is beneficial for me. But it must immediately be curbed and curtailed if it does not enrich but robs me of my spiritual world. Love is the same kind of devout exercise, the same kind of activity, as any other external act. One thing alone is important: my standing obediently before God, my relationship with God, my turning toward the contemplation of his eternal goodness. The world may abide in sin, it may tear itself apart with its own sicknesses — but all these things are utterly insignificant when compared with the immovable light of the Divine Perfection, while all this world is simply a trial field — a whetstone, so to speak, on which I can hone my own virtue. How can I even think that I might give something to the world? I who am nothing, wounded by ancestral sin, covered with sores because of my own personal vices and sins? My gaze is turned inward on myself, I see only my own loathsomeness, my own scabs and wounds. It is about these that one must think, for these that one must repent and weep. One must eliminate everything that stands in the way of salvation. There is really no room to worry about the misfortunes of others — unless by way of the exercise of virtue.

That’s how it is. In practice, you will not immediately figure out that this is how such a person understands Christ’s teaching about love. He is merciful, he visits the sick, he is attentive to human misery, he even offers people his love. And only if you pay close attention will you perceive that he is not doing this out of self-renouncing and sacrificial love, laying down his life for his friends: he is doing it as an ascetic exercise, for this is how he will nurture, this is how he will save his own soul. He knows that, as the Apostle said, love is the greatest thing of all, and that for the salvation of the soul in addition to any other virtues there must be love. And he will train himself in this, along with the other virtues. He will teach himself, he will force himself to love — so long as it does not lay him waste, so long as it is not dangerous. A strange and fearsome holiness — or likeness of holiness — unfolds itself along this path. You will see a genuine and clear line of real ascent, of refinement, of development. But along with this, you will feel a certain coldness, an extraordinary spiritual stinginess, a kind of miserliness. The other person, the other person’s soul — a stranger’s, of course — becomes not the object of love, but a means for the benefitting of my own soul. Such an understanding of Christianity is often the lot of strong and manly souls. It can prove a temptation for the more worthy, more self-sacrificing souls, for those closest to the Kingdom of heaven. The temptation lies in its extraordinary purity, its intensity, in its deceptive and yet attractive type of holiness. What can one say? How can one compare one’s own lukewarm state, one’s own lack of heroic action with this vast and vigorous spirit, striding forward with giant steps? How can one possibly avoid being tempted?

There is only one thing that can shield you against such temptation: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

If you judge the true essence of things by this criterion, you will begin to perceive that such ascetic renunciation of the world is an extreme form of egoism, an improper and inadmissible act of self-preservation. And then there will be some strange comparisons, some surprising coincidences. For such a diametrical opposition of one’s “I” to the whole world can and does take place for other, non-ascetic — and even non-religious — reasons. Are not the true representatives of “this world” cut off from the world by an impenetrable wall of absent love? No matter what their particular concern in life may be, within their conscience there always exists that impassable chasm between their “I” and the world. The more egotistical — the more “secularized” — such people are, the further removed they are from the genuine life of the world, the more the world is for them a kind of inanimate comfort or inanimate torment over against which they set their animate “I.” In this sense we see that opposites do coincide. We see here at both extremes the affirmation of one’s own unique “I,” the affirmation of a grasping, greedy and miserly love of one’s own property, be this property what one acquires through spiritual experience of the ascetic path or through the external and material benefits of worldly success. What is significant here is the possessive and miserly relationship toward that property.

What can be said, then, about the role such an asceticism can play in the life of the Church? Perhaps this question needs to be approached from the opposite direction. The more horrible and sinful is the world, the more passionate is the desire to get away from it, the more difficult it is to love its image, distorted by hate and suffering, and, in general, the greater is the rejection of love. The more difficult the path within the distorted life of this world, the greater is the nostalgia for the heights. Today the world is extremely unhealthy and even dangerous for an ascetic who is seeking salvation. Prudence therefore clearly demands that one avoid contact with it so as not to expose oneself to danger. The fervent intensity, however, of the ascetic spirit which has been present in the human soul in all periods of history has always borne off individual souls toward those heights where they can go to shake the world’s dust from their feet, performing the one task worthy of man — the saving of one’s own soul.

Here I would like to pause and touch upon some of the unique characteristics of today’s world which makes it even more unbearable for someone who thirsts for ascetic detachment and heroic effort (podvig) for the salvation of his soul. There is no doubt as to the inner and outer unhappiness and misery of the world today. There is the threat of impending war, the gradual dying out of the spirit of freedom, the revolutions and dictatorships which are tearing the people apart; there is class hatred and a decline in moral principles. It would appear that there are no social ills which have not affected contemporary life. Yet at the same time we are surrounded by crowds of people who are oblivious to the tragedy of our age. At the same time we are surrounded by boundless self-satisfaction, a total lack of doubt, by physical and spiritual saturation, by an almost total overdose of all things. But this is no “feast during the plague.” [endnote: The Feast during the Plague is the title of a play by Pushkin, published in the 1830s and based on John Wilson’s City of the Plague.] To feast during a plague carries with it its own enormous tragedy. It is just one step, one hair’s breadth from religious contrition and enlightenment. In it there is something of the courage of despair. And if someone happens to be there who wants to give his love to the world, it will not be hard for him to find words of denunciation, of summons, and of love.

Today, in a time of plague, one as a rule counts one’s daily earnings and in the evening goes to the cinema. There is no talk of the courage of despair because there is no despair. There is only utter contentment and total spiritual quiescence. The tragic nature of the psychology of contemporary man is self-evident. And every fiery prophet, every preacher will be in a quandary: on which side of the caf table should he sit? How can he cast light on the nature of today’s stock market gains? How can he break through, trample and destroy this sticky, gooey mass that surrounds the soul of today’s philistine? How can he set the people’s hearts on fire with his words? [endnote: A reference to Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet,” which ends with “and set the hearts of men on fire with your Word.”] The trouble is, they are covered with a thick, impenetrable, fireproof substance that you cannot burn through. Will he provide answers for their doubts? But they have no doubts about anything.

Will he denounce them? But they are quite satisfied with their modest acts of charity. After all, they don’t feel worse than anyone else. Should he depict for them the coming judgement and the eternal blessedness of the righteous? But they don’t really believe in any of this — and anyway, they are completely satisfied with the blessings of this age. But this stagnation, this inertia, this self-satisfaction and feeling of well-being which characterizes contemporary man is something very difficult to take into one’s heart and to love, since it provokes perplexity rather than compassion. And this produces still more reasons for wanting to shake the dust from one’s feet, since it is obvious that no amount of participation in such a petty life can change anything in it.

At this point there develops a particularly elevated type of spiritual ego-centrism. And with it all other types of ego-centrist likewise appear. One is crushed by one’s own impotence; one has come to know clearly and attentively all one’s sins, all one’s faults and failures. One sees the nothingness of one’s soul and constantly unmasks the snakes and scorpions that are nesting there. Such a person repents of his sins, but his repentance does not free him from thoughts of his own nothingness. He is not transfigured because of it, and again and again he returns to the one thing that interests him — the spectacle of his own nothingness, his own sinfulness. Not only the cosmos as a whole and all human history, but even the fate of an individual person, his suffering, his failures, his joys and his dreams — all these fade away and disappear in the light of my own downfall, my own sin. The whole world is colored by the glow from the fire of my own soul. More than that — the whole world is somehow consumed in the conflagration of my soul.

This particular understanding of Christianity, at that very moment, demands a most profound analysis of self, a struggle against the passions, a prayer for one’s own salvation. Only one kind of prayer to the Creator of the universe, to the Pantocrator, to the Redeemer of all mankind is possible for such a person — a prayer for oneself, for one’s own salvation, a prayer for mercy for oneself. Sometimes this is a prayer for what are really awful and frightful gifts. And sometimes the Creator of the universe is required to fulfil my prayerful petitions for something which is not very great — I am only asking him for “sleep peaceful and undisturbed.”

Spiritual ego-centrist replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser — and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames. The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.

Every type of ego-centrist always leads to self-poisoning and a certain satiation, to the impossibility of any true understanding. It can be boldly stated that spiritual ego-centrist is completely subject to this law. And this self-poisoning can sometimes even lead one to absolute and total spiritual death.

This is perhaps the most frightening phenomenon that can await anyone. And it is especially frightening because it is difficult to discern, because it imperceptibly replaces true spiritual values with false ones, because at times it requires that one rise up against profound, exalted but improperly understood Christian values without which such a rising up is impossible — it requires that one rise up against asceticism.

Back to the index page of Types of Religious Lives