There was recently some rather stimulating discussion at Koinonia on the different place that asceticism has in Orthodox and Catholic life. A guest post by Chrys (see also the follow-up post by Father Gregory) argued that asceticism is a foundational element in Orthodox discipleship and that since “this understanding tends to be absent, forgotten, misunderstood or diminished in the West” it can therefore be difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand. Ascetical discipline is “an integral part of the path to theosis” and the means by which we come to the self-knowledge that is necessary for “the ever-deepening conversion necessary for theosis.”

While I would like to think that the older monastic traditions in the West have more in common with the Orthodox perspective here, I could not help thinking that Chrys’ analysis was incisive and that it had important implications. This touches on various themes that I keep thinking that I want to come back to, some of which I hope to post more on although this will probably be in a less than entirely systematic way. As I stated in a comment,  while the reasons for this falling apart of the ascetical tradition in the West are complex, they include the loss of the body’s role as bearer of meaning, a juridically orientated understanding of salvation, the divorce between “mysticism” and ecclesial life and an increasingly institutional understanding of the Church, and probably also others. In any case, I have the impression that the penitential practices of the last few centuries had lost their connection with transformation and theosis, leading to a reaction that has made asceticism a dirty word in many Catholic circles. This is obviously wide-ranging terrain that requires further reflection.

For now I thought that it might be worth highlighting the foundational role that asceticism plays in the ontology of personhood that Zizioulas developed in the first chapter of  Being as Communion.  (See here for a detailed summary). This implies a radical denial of the tragic nature of death which must of necessity be rooted in God. While biological offspring can ensure the survival of the species they cannot ensure the continuation of the concrete person. This eternal survival of the person as a unique, unrepeatable ‘hypostasis’ constitutes the quintessence of salvation and theosis means coming to participate in God’s personal existence.

The goal of salvation is that the personal life which is realized in God should also be realized on the level of human existence. (50)

Zizioulas sees Christian life as conditioned by both the biological and the ecclesial hypostasis. The biological hypostasis is constituted by conception and birth. While not unrelated to love, eros and the body have a tragic aspect because they are interwoven with individuality and death and are therefore tied to an ontological necessity implied by natural instinct. To be freed from such necessity means not the destruction of eros and the body, but rather that they should be freed by receiving a new hypostasis, namely, the new birth of baptism. It is precisely this possibility that is offered to us in Christ, namely the realization in history of the very reality of the person.

Christology consequently is the proclamation to man that his nature can be ‘assumed’ and hypostasized in a manner free from the ontological necessity of his biological hypostasis… (56)

While it is precisely this new reality that is brought to birth in the Church and in the new relationships that it implies, the biological hypostasis does not cease to exist but continues to exist in a paradoxical relationship with the ecclesial hypostasis. The ecclesial hypostasis has a certain eschatological nature and this is seen especially in the celebration of the Eucharist “which has as its object man’s transcendence of his biological hypostasis and his becoming an authentic person.” (61)

This ecclesial hypostasis is therefore necessarily ascetical. This means that eros and the body are not to be denied, but rather to be hypostasised in such a way that they become freed from ontological necessity. While taking the tragic aspect of the biological hypostasis seriously, the eucharistic hypostasis is rooted ontologically in the future and receives its pledge from the resurrection of Christ.

In such a perspective asceticism is not simply a matter of spiritual discipline or individual penitential practice, but has a much more foundational role. It is the dynamic link, as it were, between what is and what is yet to come, a necessary ingredient in that which constitutes us as Church. And to disregard it raises questions not only about individual spiritual practice, but more fundamentally about our very understanding of life in Christ.