Framing Ascetic Labor

The modern, enlightenment perspective makes understanding the austerity of physical asceticism difficult. This psychiatric perspective emphasizes mildness and "balance," the notion that of not being too disruptive or "extreme," or as narcissistic self-hate or masochism. Then again, no external set of behaviors devoid of purpose or context is salvific, the perceived danger of emulating the ascetics is a literalist commitment to self-willed activity, the precise attribute spiritual practices seeks to dismantle. Hence, the distortion belongs to the modern who sees form without content, not with those who enter a devout life, usually in companionship with an experienced guide.

To be clear, there is only one path to life in God, the Cross by which the Jesus conquers Death, the distinction between laity, monastic, and clergy is irrelevant to ascetic practice.

The salient issue in ascetic practice is the efficiency of method in context of the life given at a particular time. Achieving unity with God and expressing love in the world is the standard for a mature Christian life. Asceticism prepares a person, soul and body, for a mature life, making one ready for sanctification, with full awareness that life in this world is an interlude to that which follows the repose of the body in its death. As such, asceticism is neither a punishment nor satisfaction of a penalty.

The foundering of the psychological perspective begins with obedience as acceptance of constraints on the physical capacity to act. Physical constraints impose limits on the activity of both the body and self-will. As such, physical constraints are mirror passions in the soul. As the body and volitional activity are pacified by a physical constraint, so the soul and the desires of the spirit are pacified by emotional encumbrances. Physical constraint provides the framework for divine illumination through the perception of mortality and acquiring humility; whilst emotional encumbrance provides the framework for exploitation by the classical causes of human alienation from God, demonic temptations to self-indulgence (classically "gluttony") and self-satisfaction (classically "fornication").

The struggle by the ascetic for tranquility (hesychia) is a struggle against the forms of human incapacitation. To experience incapacitation, whether in the form of spiritual passivity, or of an encumbrance of the will, or of an illness, or of merciless enslavement, or of death itself, gives rise to frustration of the will and to the experience of suffering. Too often frustration produces anger, and anger, wrath, which is the root of murderous intent. Too often, the experience of suffering produces resentment, and resentment, merciless hard-heartedness, which is the root of hateful vindictiveness. Dictating the inner logic of incapacitation is self-righteous judgment.

As such, the labor of an ascetic is to struggle to make God present at all moments of the scale of human incapacity. More directly, the intention of the ascetic is to live the fullness of "God with us": In every place in His dominion, Praise the Lord.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, in his Homilies 60 and 61, provides one of the clearest expositions on this path to holiness, an individual path navigated of single-minded effort to clean and decorate the entire personality as a Temple of God worthy to be filled by His indwelling.

As St. Isaac explains, God continuously showers providential care on all creation, giving life to the world, and purpose to all creation. For self-willed creatures to expect or demand anything more than the abundance God is already providing for them is profoundly arrogant; rejecting as imperfect that which is made perfect by God, by setting against the reality of God the self-seeking standard of individual willfulness.

For those who acquire translucent, lipid, purity faith in God leads to foreknowing hope or confidence that God will provide, not out of necessity or requirement, but out of love. St. Isaac illustrates this point citing St. Ammon, an associate of St Anthony the Great, who in a moment of trial declared, "O Lord, let not thy servant perish."

To right-order the will to make it receptive to the God Who is Love, requires subduing the self, by forgoing the living an easy life, material comfort, or physical satisfaction. Ease and comfort owe their origin to the delighting of the mind in the perception of things not given directly by God, validating the evil one's urgings that objects denied are yet good to eat. As fallen creatures, relaxed luxury is the delusion of a life unconstrained by singular dedication to God.

St. Isaac explains, it is only those who ready their souls for His indwelling, who are prepared to receive instruction as to the way in which they should go, that fall within the gaze of the Spirit. Without instruction in the work of love it is not illumined by the light of God, hence exits in it blindly. To seek to meet the God who is Love is to dedicate one's life to requiting that love. It does indeed grieve Love when Love is not met with love, unrequited love is the Cross of the world. As such, for St. Isaac, the epitome of self-dedication to God is St. Paul, who has "given oath that I die daily" and in so doing sets the self apart for enjoyment, the state of being filled with in joy, not by the self, but of those things properly given by God.

Stripped of any and all worldly luxury, light-heartedness, not merely reduced by happenstance but by positive effort of the will to embrace God exclusively through a foreshadowing of reality of death in this world, the individual experiences astonishment, life as love.

Citing St. John's Gospel, St. Isaac explains that in the world one has tribulation, but in Christ, rejoicing so great as to endure all things, conquering death itself. To endure all suffering for the sake of God is to acquire the ability to gaze confidently on God, gaining true wisdom. True wisdom is the clarity of mind required to live a life consistent with that of a lover returning the love of the lover, a love overflowing to all things.

Training and experience are required to bring about a virtuous circle of love in the life of a creature. All training entails tests of abilities and trials of self-discipline, indeed, without such tests and trials no one gains the experience necessary to practice their craft, and the craft of of every Christian is love. Hence, it is the array and depth of tests and trials that constitute ascetic experience. The styles of ascetic experience differ according to where one practices, whether in evangelistic assembly or in the singularity of the lavra of repentance, it is only by applying insights to the practical situations of daily life that wisdom is converted into knowledge, that faith and hope in Christ become expressible as love for all creation by the Spirit-bearing soul, and the conquest of death is magnified in every place of His dominion.

As such, the ordinary formation of a Christian soul is the physical ascetic practice of Spirit-bearing. The wisdom of the Mother of God is compacted and distilled into a single command: "Do whatever He tells you." Following this commandment, the servants are able to carry vessels containing uncontainable goodness through continuously maturity. Each taste of wine drawn from the vessels filled with love is better than the last, each glass being having been kept by providential care until just now, when each is ready to receive it according to their own nature.

This is mild and balanced life, but an alien one, far from the notions modern rationalists would understand.