Asceticism


This blog series has been sadly disrupted. This post concludes my summary of Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” that forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts can be found here, here, and here. In the following post I hope to reflect on concerns raised in this essay against the background of recent events.

The previous post noted the weaknesses of descriptive and stand-alone approaches to Christian spirituality, particularly regarding their lack of theological and anthropological grounding. Father Golubov continues by arguing that “outside a proper theological understanding and grounding of its goals and purposes, Christian spirituality loses authenticity.” (Kindle Location 250) In response to this, he outlines some theological foundations for an authentically Orthodox Christian spirituality. These are:

a) There is a relationship between God and humanity that is rooted in “the one God, ‘the Ground of all Being,’ glorified and worshipped in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Divine Author of, and Provider for, all human life” and the “Supreme Lawgiver.” (Kindle Location 269)

b) Every human person is created in the Image of God and therefore has the possibility of a direct and personal relationship with God.

c) Every human person is created autonomous and free and is intended to acquire the Divine Likeness, which is our primary spiritual vocation but is dependent on our free choice.

d) God’s Divine philanthropia desires the welfare and salvation of all human beings, but always respects our human freedom.

e) The human race has been unable to live out human life according to the Divine purpose but has “through defiance and disobedience wilfully altered human nature as originally created, entering instead, into a fallen state of disintegration, corruption, and bondage to sin, being ‘wedded unto death.’” (Kindle Location 287)

f) Despite the present fallen state of human nature, human life remains a “a lived-out response to the creative Divine fiat (‘let it be’) which originally called man out of non-being into being; but it is only in rising to conscious awareness that the transcendent purpose and goal of life is to be found in God that human experience, sua generis, becomes the type of authentic ‘spiritual experience’ through which man arrives at profound understanding not only of the depths of human imperfection and brokenness, but also an abiding need for effectual deliverance and redemption.” (Kindle Location 295)

g) Since the fall, human nature has become corrupted and human beings are incapable of extricating themselves from their fallen state. They are therefore in need of divine forgiveness and reconciliation “through a healing reintegration of their relationship with God and with each other.” (Kindle Location 295)

h) God “so loved the world” that “in the fullness of time” He sent the Incarnate God-Man who, through His obedience and death, becomes the only Redeemer and Saviour of humankind, calling all to repentance and opening the way to the “re-perfecting” of human nature.

i) The human yearning for salvation responds to the Divine kenosis that flows from the Divine philanthropia and focuses on the Person of Jesus Christ. “It is from here, in one’s personal recognition of Christ as the unique Saviour and Redeemer of the world, that faith, indeed, becomes possible, and that an intentional and inspired Christian spirituality becomes a purposeful and integrative inner journey to the ultimate healing of the ‘old’ and ‘fallen’ human nature, through perfect union with the ‘resurrected,’ hence ‘re-imaged’ and ‘glorified,’ divinely-human (theanthropic, bogochelovecheskaia) nature of Christ.” (Kindle Location 311)

Father Golubov argues that it is precisely this theological challenge and promise that constitutes both the point of departure and the objective goal of authentic “Orthodox spirituality.” This is neither a theological abstraction of Christian doctrine, nor a “reification of Christian living and practice,” but is rather a “theologically informed discipline of living.” (Kindle Location 319) While it can be taught, such teaching and learning is not yet the fullness of celebration. In conclusion,

Understood symbolically, Orthodox spirituality is experienced sub specie aeternitatis (“from the perspective of eternity”) and lived out holistically, with inherent purpose and meaning, as a symbolic journey, or spiritual quest, in accordance with the commandments of the Gospel, through personal appropriation of the living and authentic experience of the ecclesial community (“Holy Tradition”), leading to the ultimate reality of deification (theosis) and Life Everlasting in the Eternal Kingdom of which Christ Himself is both Lord and King. (Kindle Location 331)

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I haven’t abandoned this series, and will hopefully conclude the summary of this article in the following post. I do intend to engage with it more as I am noticing all sorts of resonances. Once I’ve finished this article, I will return to the Florovsky blogging, and possibly return to the rest of this book at a later stage…

Having noted some Orthodox objections to the term “spirituality,” Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective”* proceeds to consider western discussions of the term that emerged in the 1960s. He notes the work of Walter Principe and Ewert Cousins, before focusing on the contribution of Sandra Schneiders, which, he argues,

comes closest to Orthodox understanding – at least on the basis of ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ theology – and is useful to us precisely as a sounding board, as it were, for testing aspects of Christian spirituality understood specifically from the Orthodox perspective. (Kindle Location 190)

Schneiders summarizes Christian spirituality as:

personal participation in the mystery of Christ begun in faith, sealed by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nourished by the sharing of the Lord’s Supper [i.e., Eucharist], which the community celebrated regularly in memory of Him who was truly present wherever his followers gathered, and was expressed by a simple life of universal love that bore witness to life in the Spirit and attracted others to the faith. (201)

While it would appear that all the essentials are in place in this understanding, Father Golubov raises “a third major issue in a focused study of spirituality,” namely, that of “the theological context of the discussion, as well as the dangers of facile formulaic definitions taken out of such context.” (201) Spirituality is both formed and informed by theology, which raises the question of the theological meaning of Schneiders’ description. While she gives adequate explanations elsewhere, “in contexts wherein definitions of spirituality, such as the one given above, stand on their own merit, absent a larger framework of discussion, inevitable confusion arises about implicit theological assumptions standing behind such definitions.” (211)

This leads Golubov to argue that “The stark realization, ultimately, is that an externally descriptive approach to Christian spirituality is, at best, meaningless, absent the dimensions of theological definition and evaluation, appropriation and understanding of inner goals and purposes.” (211) Such a definition provides no clear answers to the question of Jesus Christ’s identity, nor does it clarify what “participation in the mystery of Christ” involves. Moreover, such a descriptive approach also lacks an understanding of human nature and the need for a transformational inner struggle.

Is spiritual metamorphosis, or transfiguration, a noteworthy component of Christian spirituality? Or is it that “a simple life of universal love” is somehow (how – magically?) to be attained without need for any internal striving or struggle (askesis) implicit in Christian living, without the necessity of self-denial and crucifixion of the self, as implicit in the injunction “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:23-25; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26)? And is there, in fact, in “coming after,” or “following” Christ, a “way” to be travelled, a “spiritual journey” to be undertaken? Is there any movement, development, growth, direction on the way, or a goal that is to be achieved at the end of the journey? (230)

Finally, there is the question of the role of theology. Father Golubov argues that:

It is, in fact, theology, as intentionally engaged in the process of ongoing theological reflection, that directly imparts both meaning and direction to authentic spirituality, not only in the active categories of speaking or informing, but also in passive terms, as hearing and appropriating, or even in seeking deeper theological understanding.

From this perspective, then, beyond exhibiting the inherent weakness of a purely “descriptive” approach to spirituality, there is implicit in stand-alone definitions of Christian spirituality a certain theological naïveté that speaks, perhaps, to a larger failure of theological understanding; it is here, in fact, that we meet up, once again, with the difficult issues of Christian living that have been identified and raised by Evdokimov and Florovsky. (241)

To be continued…

* This forms the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. My previous posts on it can be found here and here.

I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

I’m afraid that this blog has been very neglected of late (I do intend continuing the series I launched in the last post and then promptly abandoned, but…) and I had meant to do this book review much earlier. But let me at least get it up before Lent actually starts!

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

In November, I reviewed Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s Meditations for Advent; Preparing for Christ’s Birth, which had just been published and I wrote about his very welcome entrance into the world of contemporary Orthodox literature. Apart from Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which came out in 2012, he has just published Thirty Steps to Heaven on the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and another book on Holy Week is due out soon. While some of us struggle to write single blog posts, he has been churning out books at an incredible rate. And they are, moreover, very good. As I said previously, they are accessible to a wide readership and yet they also contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Meditations for Great Lent was published in 2012 and is somewhat shorter than Meditations for Advent. In fact, it is very much a “to the point” book. By this I mean that there is a fair bit that it doesn’t include, such as a discussion of most of the Sundays of Great Lent. But I suspect that that was a conscious decision so as not to distract us from the central thrust of the book, which is to open up for us the true meaning of our Lenten repentance as we journey towards Pascha.

As the subtitle indicates, Father Vassilios draws heavily on the liturgical texts of the Church and this is one of the great strengths of these books. I seem to never tire of quoting Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The Church choir is the school of theology,” yet the reality is that for many people these great riches are virtually unknown. And, to be honest, they are probably also not that accessible to many people. But these books provide an entrance point, providing the great riches of the Church in a truly accessible way.

Interestingly, about half of the book deals with the period before Great Lent actually starts. Most of The Sundays that Father Vassilios focuses on are actually the first four Sundays of the Triodion and I suspect that the reason for this is that it is these Sundays that really teach us what the Fast is about and how we are to approach it. Here we find reflections on humility, repentance, ascetic love, fasting, not judging and forgiveness. There are stern warning against self-righteousness, the dangers of piety and an with obsession outward rules. We are reminded that “pride renders fasting useless” and are told in no uncertain terms that:

If the fast is not a means to improving our spiritual lives, if we fast from food but not from sin, then we are no better than devils! The demons do not eat, but they are no closer to God for it. (Kindle location 196)

Central to the purpose of the Fast is that it is there to teach us the true meaning of repentance. Such repentance

… looks forward and not back; it looks upward and not down. It is, ultimately, something that leads us to joy and liberation. God calls us to true joy and true freedom, and we cannot attain that until we have rejected the false joy and freedom of sin. (Kindle location 271)

This positive destination is seen in the chapter on the Return to Paradise in which we see the role of food both in the loss of Paradise by Adam and Eve, and also in our journey back to God.

The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, but as something that is made possible through and within the body. We all too often find within ourselves a conflict between body and soul. The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring the balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit. In restoring this balance, we turn back to Paradise, to the life of Eden. Then we can have hope that, like Moses, we too may see God. (Kindle location 329)

Of crucial importance on this journey is the struggle against the passions and the cultivating of the virtues, and there is an exceptionally good chapter on this which is based on the prayer of Saint Ephrem, and which really deserves a separate discussion. There is also an important chapter on the joy of Lent. Consider this:

Those who think of Lent purely in terms of fasting and obligations can never fully experience the joy of Lent. The joy of Lent is offered to us in the Lenten worship, through the services of Great Compline and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. These solemn services help us gradually to change our hearts and lives by entering into the bright sadness of Lent, through which we are able to make our own the joy of repentance, the joy of returning to God. (Kindle Location 476)

This positive orientation is continued in the chapters on the Sunday of the Cross and the Canon of Saint Andrew, and it ends by reminding us of our true destination.

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It is thus a season of joyful expectation. If we take Lent seriously, the journey is arduous, but this only makes Pascha all the more radiant and joyful. But throughout Lent, we are never allowed to forget the Resurrection, which fills all things, all ascetic labors, all solemnity, sorrow, and contrition, with gladness and brightness. (Kindle location 552)

And,

Lent is the rediscovery of that which is most essential in our lives. In this rediscovery, we return to God and to the very meaning of life. (Kindle location 557)

As I said of Meditations for Advent, this is a book to be read and then re-read slowly a prayerfully as we enter this holy season.

This seven(?)-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

This lifelong process of repentance involves an active struggle or ascesis, in which we cooperate with God’s grace as we try to live according to His commandments. This is not simply a matter of outer observances, but rather of using the means that the Church gives to us to grow in purity of heart. For the commandments ultimately lead to a life according to the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12) Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the Lord’s commandment that we should look for our spiritual poverty, that is, that we should experience our wretchedness. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the Lord’s commandment to weep over the passions which we have in us, over our desolation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the Lord’s commandment to hunger and thirst after communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is Christ’s commandment to purify our hearts. When He says “blessed” it is as if He said: “Become poor, mournful, thirsting for righteousness”, and so forth.*

Rooted in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Christ, the Church has developed ascetic practices that help us to live according to the commandments of Christ and to bring our wills into conformity with His. These include vigils, study, prayer, self-control and hesychia. However, how we apply these will vary from person to person. We are all different and have different needs. Moreover, we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. Orthodox tradition therefore emphasises the importance of accountability and of seeking the guidance of a trusted spiritual father who can serve as a physician of souls, for on our own we are capable of great self-deception. It also emphasises – and the liturgical texts for the first week of Great Lent make this abundantly clear – that heroic acts of asceticism are of no use if they do not make us more loving towards our neighbours.

Asceticism is a difficult topic to address in some contemporary Christian circles and misconceptions abound. It may help to say what asceticism is not: it is not suffering for sufferings sake, as if that will somehow help us, or please God. It is not an attempt to win favours with God. It is not rooted in some dualistic hatred of the body. On the contrary, asceticism, which comes from the word for struggle, is rooted in the recognition of the importance of our bodies for our salvation. By curbing our appetites it enables us to break through the mental images we may have of ourselves and to face up to who we really are and to the things that matter to us. And it enables us to learn true freedom, for we may think that we are free but we do not realise the extent to which we are really controlled by our desires.

This recognition of the importance of the body is also found in the Orthodox approach to prayer. Prayer is not simply a mental activity, but one that involves all our senses. The traditional Christian posture for prayer is that of standing – the posture of the Resurrection –, although kneeling and prostrating have their appropriate times and places as well. This use of our bodies is expressed in other ways – gesture, icons, incense, music, colour, light and so on. These are not simply arbitrary or a form of decoration, but are conveyers of meaning although often at a very subtle level.

What we do in our bodies affects the whole of our lives. Many western converts to Orthodoxy find that we need to get over a certain threshold before we are able to do things like kissing icons and making prostrations. Yet in doing so a whole world opens up for us as we come to realise, not simply in theory but in reality, that Christianity is not simply about what we believe with our cerebral minds, but what we do. And through the “doing” we are gradually led to the place of the heart, the place where true transformation can occur.

To be continued…

* Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, 48.

Asceticism is necessary in order to think straight – about ourselves (anthropology), the world (cosmology), and God (theology). The place where we can think straight is the place where we stand straight. At the opening of the anaphora in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the deacon bids the Church, “Let us stand aright; let us stand in fear; let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” There is nothing wrong with matter, but matter has been wronged by us. By turning away from the Creator, anthropos does not use matter eucharistically or receive matter sacramentally. We have wounded creation, and by our fault matter does not fulfill its end any more. Ephrem [the Syrian] describes the reaction of the sun to human idolatry:

The sun bellowed out in silence to the Lord against his worshippers.
It was a suffering for him, the  servant, that instead of his Lord he was worshipped.
Behold the creation is joyful that the Creator is worshipped…
Since fools honored the sun, they diminished him in his honor.
Now that they know he is a servant, by his course he worships the Lord.
All the servants are glad to be counted servants.
Blessed is he who sets the natures in order!
We have done perverse things that we should be servants to servants…
Since fools honored the sun, they diminished him in his honor.
Now that they know he is  a servant, by his course he worships his Lord.
All the servants are glad to be counted as servants.
Blessed is he who set the natures in order!
We have done perverse things that we should be servants to servants…

That is why creation groans in travail, waiting for the redemption of anthropos. Asceticism is required of the liturgist so that earth may be healed; asceticism is required of the theologian in order to see matter more clearly.

David W. Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What Is Liturgical Theology? 27-28.

I was given this book a few months ago and have only dipped into it – I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice at being given it, or mourn because the bookshop worker gave it to me because she didn’t think any of their regular clients would be interested in it! But Fagerberg is eminently quotable and what he says about asceticism highly worthshile. (I once quoted from a podcast of his here).

*****

P.S. A gem from the Preface that I quoted on FB a few months ago: “Christianity involves liturgy, theology, and asceticism the way a pancake involves flour, milk and eggs: They are ingredients to the end result. Leave one out and you don’t have exactly the same thing any more.” (x)

The Lord continually likens human souls to vines. He says for instance: ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill” (Is 5,1) and again: “I planted a vineyard and put a hedge round it” (cf Mt 21,33). Clearly it is human souls that he calls his vineyard, and the hedge he has put round them is the security of his commandments and the protection of the angels; for “the angel of the lord will encamp around those who fear him” (Ps 34[33],8). Moreover, by establishing in the Church “apostles in the first place, prophets in the second, and teachers in the third” (1Cor 12,28), he has surrounded us as though by a firmly planted palisade. In addition, the Lord has raised our thoughts to heaven by the examples of saints of past ages. He has kept them from sinking to the earth where they would deserve to be trampled on, and he wills that the bonds of love, like the tendrils of a vine, should attach us to our neighbors and make us rest on them, so that always climbing upward like vines growing on trees, we may reach the loftiest heights.

He also requires that we allow ourselves to be weeded. To be spiritually weeded means to have renounced the worldly ambitions that burdened our hearts. Anyone who has renounced the love of material things and attachment to possessions, or who has come to regard as despicable and deserving of contempt the poor, wretched glory of this world, is like a weeded vine. Freed from the profitless burden of earthly aspirations, that person can breathe again.

Finally, following out the implications of the comparison, we must not run to wood, or, in other words, show off or seek the praise of outsiders. Instead, we must bear fruit by reserving the display of our good works for the true vinedresser (Jn 15,1).

Saint Basil the Great (c.330-379), Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, Homily 5 on the Hexaemeron, 6 (SC 26, p.304)

H/t to an email from Jim Forest.

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