In the first chapter of Being as Communion Zizioulas speaks of the ascetic character of the ecclesial hypostasis, which is not a denial of biological nature but rather of the limitations of the biological hypostasis. Asceticism for Zizioulas orientates us to the transcendence of the limitations of ontological necessity, opening us to the future and a new ecclesial and eucharistic way of being. Asceticism has to do with the boundary territory between that which is and that which is yet to come, a theme that becomes clearer in Communion and Otherness where he describes the ascetic way as the way of the descent into hell. 

Yet asceticism appears to be problematic for many Western Christians, something that has been highlighted in some blog posts, which are probably old news by now. A few weeks ago Steve Hayes of Khanya had a post on Christian Asceticism in which he highlighted the negative attitudes of many Protestants to asceticism on the grounds that it is rooted in a body hating dualism. And Father Stephen of Glory to God for All Things had a post on The Lost Tradition in which he bemoaned the loss of consciousness of the need to struggle against the passions on the part of many Christians.

This is a reaction that I have also become aware of; indeed, it is even a reaction that I may at one stage have shared. And it is by no means limited to Protestants but seems to be quite common among Catholics, especially Catholics working in what is often termed “spirituality” – a word that I find quite problematic and which encompasses a variety of emphases – who seek to distance themselves from any idea of asceticism. Even writers whom I otherwise admire, such as Albert Nolan and Sandra Schneiders, seem to view the ascetical tradition in negative terms.

Yet there is an irony in certain contemporary cultural juxtapositions, for while much of the “spirituality” scene is seeking to dissociate itself from any taint of “asceticism,” the ascetical tradition in the early Church is exercising a certain fascination for scholars of antiquity. Books such as Peter Brown’s The Body and Society show that ascetical practices in the early Church were intimately connected both to the structure of society and to the personal transformation of the individual and enabled him or her to transcend the expected roles. Moreover, there is a resurgence of interest in the role of the body in theology and spirituality and yet this does not seem to significantly undermine negative attitudes to asceticism.

It seems to me that a significant part of the problem is that many Western Christians seem to be reacting against the ideas of asceticism of the last few centuries, which had lost their connection to the transformative power of the early ascetical movement. Ideas of penance, of offering things up and of reparation – while I would not entirely want to reject them, and while their historical and theological context requires a much more careful discussion – had become associated with a sort of suffering for the sake of suffering. Anselm Grün writes: 

In the past many Christians have had an incorrect idea of asceticism. Instead of viewing asceticism as a way by which one learns freedom, they have seen it as a voluntary dying off. They have killed the part of themselves that did not match up with the ideal image that they had of themselves.

Anselm Grün, De Tien Beloften. Wegwijzers naar de Vrijheid (Ten Have, 2007) (I don’t know if there is an English translation; the original German title is Die Zehn Gebote. Wegweiser in die Freiheit)

Grün’s description of asceticism as a learning of freedom seems to me to be of key importance. Asceticism is certainly about denying ourselves, but this denial has no value in itself. It is rather a means to a goal, namely union with God, but the means itself is by no means unimportant. Through denying ourselves we are confronted with the reality of our lives, and of our rather mixed desires, as they really are and not as we would like to make them out to be in the neat little mental images that we make! Asceticism is therefore above all the learning of self-knowledge, which alone can lead to purity of heart. It is about learning the truth of who we are before God and daring to stand in that truth which alone can lead to transformation.

It should also be clear that the body has a crucial role to play in this, and yet as westerners we so often forget this, even while paying lip service to it. We have been wounded by Modernity’s assumption that thinking or saying things is what is important. Yet language is much more than verbal language and our deepest motivations and desires are certainly not always conscious, much less rational. Asceticism exists to bring us into touch with this, to bring us to the frontier between what is and what is not yet. It enables us to stand in the present, open to the future.

… 

These are very preliminary reflections, but this is a topic that I hope to pursue further in different ways. It is also not exactly seasonal: I started writing this in Lent and it would have fitted better then, but I post it anyway.

One cautionary note, although it should be obvious from what I have said: the tradition is emphatic in teaching that obedience, balance and discernment are more important than great ascetic feats, precisely because of the danger of self-delusion and pride that they performance of ascetic acts entails. If asceticism does not lead to self-knowledge, to humility, to a contrite heart and to love of God and one’s neighbour then it is of no use. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were quite clear that the devil was also capable of inspiring great ascetical acts.

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