Asceticism


The third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Manners of Praying” and in it Father Gabriel (Bunge) is concerned with the disposition of those who pray which is reflected in the manner in which we pray. And the first “manner” that he discusses is that reflected by the tears that are to accompany our prayers (Heb 5:7).

For both Scripture and the Fathers, tears and prayer were intimately connected. These tears “belong to the “practical manner” of prayer, for they are part of the labours of praktike, that is the first stage of the spiritual life. (97)

Why this insistence on the necessity of tears, which appears so strange to modern men? Is the Christian not supposed to be joyful instead? Certainly, by the Fathers viewed the human condition more realistically perhaps than we do.

Abba Longinus had great contrition when he prayed and recited the psalms. One day his disciple asked him, “Abba, is this a spiritual rule, that a monk should weep all the time he is praying his office?” And the elder answered, “Yes, my Child, this is the rule that God now demands of us. For in the God did not create man so that he might weep, but rather so that he might rejoice and be glad and might glorify him, as pure and sinless as the angels. Once he fell into sin, however, he needed tears. And all who have fallen need them just the same. For where there are no sins, no tears will be necessary.” (99)

While the first stage of the spiritual life is marked by repentance, conversion and a change of heart,

The very thought of such a conversion, however , is met with unexpected interior resistance. Evagrius speaks in this regard about a certain interior “wildness” (ἀναισθησια) and dullness, which is overcome only with the help of tears of spiritual “sorrow” (πένθος).

Pray first for the gift of tears, so as to soften through contrition the wildness that dwells in your soul, so that by “confessing your transgressions to the LORD”, you may obtain forgiveness from him. [Evagrius](100)

Tears are a particularly effective remedy against that oppressiveness of soul that the Fathers refer to as acedia, or taedium cordis – weariness of soul, boredom and empty indifference.

However, tears should never become an end in themselves. As Evagrius says:

Even if you shed streams of tears as you pray, do not therefore become at all presumptuous in your heart, as though you stood high above the crowd. For your prayer has simply received [divine] assistance, which enables you to confess your sins eagerly and makes the Lord favourably inclined toward you through these tears. (101)

Therefore do not turn the defense against the passions into a passion itself, lest you anger the Giver of grace even more.

It is also a mistake to think that a proficient soul no longer has need of tears. Indeed

Even when a man has attained the goal of the “practical life”, the state of interior peace of soul, tears do not just vanish! At this stage, however, they are the expression of humility and as such are a guarantee that this state of peace is genuine (as opposed to the many forms of demonic counterfeits). Therefore the Fathers consider tears to be in fact a sign of a man’s nearness to God

“The nearer a man is to God, the more he feels that he is a sinner”, one of the Fathers has said, because only God’s holiness makes our sinfulness truly visible. Hence tears are not only found at the beginning of the spiritual path of conversion, but also accompany the penitent as far as his goal, where they are transformed into “spiritual tears and a certain joy of heart”, which the Fathers esteemed as a sign of the immediate action of the Holy Spirit and thus of nearness to God. (102-103)

After noting the loss of consciousness of fasting in the modern West – or its transformation into a secularized “dieting” – Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times” by noting that prayer and fasting have been seen as intimately connected from time immemorial, as is attested to by numerous passages of Scripture.

At first glance the Christian practice of fasting might seem difficult to reconcile with Christ’s word and example. Despite fasting for forty days and nights in the desert, Jesus had a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19) and his disciples’ lack of fasting was contrasted to the practice of John’s disciples (Lk 5:53).

However,

Christ did not reject fasting any more than he rejected prayer. In both cases, nevertheless, he was concerned with guarding his disciples against every sort of hypocrisy and vain display of their own “piety”.

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is with fasting just as it is with prayer: The disciples of Jesus also fast, naturally, but they do it solely for God’s sake, not in order to be seen and praised. The same goes for almsgiving and ultimately for the practice of all the virtues. The Fathers, who were noted for the severity of their fasts, took that very much to heart. It is especially true of fasting that one should “seal up the good odor of one’s [ascetical] efforts with silence.” (89)

Moreover, Christ had a particular reason for disregarding the customary fasts of His day, namely, the presence of the “Bridegroom” (Mt 9:15). He also used the symbolism of the common meal as a way to indicate the presence of the Kingdom and announce the good news of reconciliation. This privileging of the common meal was something that the Desert Fathers took to heart teaching that the commandment of hospitality overrides the rules of fasting. In addition, because fasting belonged to the penitential practices of the Church, it was not to be observed on those days “on which Christians call to mind the return of Christ the ‘Bridegroom’”.

From Saturday evening, the vigil of the Lord’s day, until the following evening, one does not bend the knee among the Egyptians, and it is the same during the entire time of Pentecost [between Easter and Pentecost], and in this season the rule of fasting is not observed, either.[Cassian] (92)

Fasting has a relative value, but its importance lies in humbling the soul.

Hence the spiritual meaning of fasting is, first of all, to make the soul humble. “Indeed, nothing humbles the soul as does fasting,” [Evagrius] since it causes the soul to experience in a fundamental way its complete dependence on God.

The obstacles to this humility of heart are our manifold “passions”, those “sicknesses of the soul” that do not allow it to behave “naturally”, that is, according to the purpose for which it was created. Now fasting is an excellent means of “covering over” these passions, as Evagrius says in an allegorical interpretation of a psalm verse.

Fasting is a covering for the soul, which conceals its passions, that is, shameful desires and irrational anger. Therefore he who does not fast exposes himself indecently,

like Noah when he was drunk, to whom Evagrius is alluding here. This means that the purpose of bodily fasting is to cleanse the soul of its shameful vices and to instil a humble attitude. Without this “purity of heart”, even the thought of “true prayer” would be sacrilege.

Whoever is [still] caught up in sins and outbursts of anger and dares to reach out shamelessly after the knowledge of divine things or even to enter [the place] of immaterial prayer, let him expect to hear the Apostle’s reproach, according to which it is not safe for him “to pray with head uncovered”. Indeed, such a soul, he says, “should have an ‘authority’ on her head, because of the angels,” by wrapping herself fittingly in shame and humility. (93)

In addition to this, fasting has a practical significance in that it enables one to watch in prayer, as opposed to a full stomach which is inclined to sleep. Fasting prepares the mind for the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Father Gabriel concludes:

Although fasting is therefore just as indispensable as watching to anyone who wants to “pray in truth”, still, like everything in the spiritual life, it must take place “at the appropriate times and in moderation”. In this respect each person will have his own suitable measure, according to his strength, his age, the circumstances of his life, and so on.

For what is immoderate and untimely is of short duration. Something that lasts only a short time, though, is more likely harmful than useful. [Evagrius] (94-95)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the fourth section on wakefulness of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by noting that contemporary people see the night mainly as a time for rest, and that staying awake is usually done for the sake of work or of feasting. By contrast, Scripture and the Fathers saw the night as the preferred time for prayer as we also see in Jesus’ own practice. For the Apostle Paul, keeping watch was “not the least important thing that distinguishes the Christian from the drowsy children of this world.” (80)

Watching and waiting belong to the oldest customs of the Church and this eschatological note of waiting for the return of the Lord was passed on to the early monks who organised the entire course of their day with this goal in mind. The practice of rising at night to pray required a certain willpower, but should not be seen as merely “an ascetical test of strength aimed at ‘conquering nature’. ‘Nature’ mistreated in such a way would sooner or later settle accounts on its own.” (83)

Rather,

Biblical man and the Fathers held watching and praying in high esteem for various reasons. The eschatological “waiting for the Lord”, which really ought to characterize every Christian, has already been mentioned. It imparts an entirely new quality to time, in that it sets a fixed goal for its endless streaming and thus impresses its own stamp on the whole of life, which strives toward this goal. “Living for today” is something quite different from realizing the uncertainty of the “day of the Lord” and therefore wisely “making the most of the time.”

Watching and waking brings about in the praying Christian that “sobriety” which guards him against being overcome with sleep and against the intoxication of the children of darkness. In turn, sobriety of the mind, which (in contrast to the “coarsening” effect of sleep) “refines” the mind, makes the one who keeps watch receptive to the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Sleep flees from the one who, like Jacob, watches his flocks at night, and if it still takes hold of him, then this sleep is for him like waking is for someone else. The fire with which his heart burns simply does not allow him to be submerged in sleep. Indeed, he sings psalms with David: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”

The one who has arrived at this degree and has tasted its sweetness understands what has been said. For such a one has not become drunk with material sleep, but only makes use of natural sleep. [Barsanuphios and John] (83-84)

Father Gabriel acknowledges that the rhythms of modern life make it more difficult to keep vigil.

“Lately, in these times” even the majority of monks have to be content with less … Christ’s example and the rule stated in the letter of the recluse John of Gaza (cited above) make clear, nevertheless, what is at stake and how one can still “watch and pray” even today. For even Christ would hardly have spent every night in prayer. Evidently, though, he was accustomed to withdraw to pray alone in the late evening, after sunset, or else “in the early morning, a great while before daylight”, as any devout soul who prayed the psalms would do. These are precisely the times that the Fathers, too, generally reserved for prayer. The individual will have to determine the quantity on the basis of his own experience, together with the advice of his spiritual father, who will take into account age, health, and spiritual maturity. One thing is certain, in any case: Without the effort of watching and waking, no one attains that spiritual “sobriety” that the monk Hesychios from Mount Sinai so extravagantly praises.

How lovely and delightful, luminous and pleasing, extraordinary, radiant, and beautiful a virtue is sobriety, when with thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the great humility of the watchful human intellect!

For indeed, it sends out “to the sea and its depths” its branches of contemplation, and “to the river its shoots” of delightful, divine mysteries. Sobriety is like Jacob’s ladder, upon which God rests and the angels ascend. (86-87)

In the third section of the second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) turns his attention to the topic of regularity in prayer, noting that “practice makes perfect” is also true of prayer:

A “practicing Christian” is, to the mind of the holy Fathers, not a man who more or less faithfully fulfils his Sunday duty, but rather one who day after day, his whole life long, prays several times a day, that is, practices his faith regularly, just as he regularly performs other functions necessary for life – eating, sleeping, breathing … Only in this way will his “spiritual activity” attain that natural character that appears self-evident in the case of the functions just mentioned. (72)

Both the Old and the New Testaments refer to regular times of prayer, a practice that the Fathers draw on and reinforce. The details of such times vary. Tertullian refers to the third, sixth and ninth hour found in the New Testament and adds to these one’s prayers at the beginning and at the end of the day and at night, giving the five hours that have been preserved by Islam. The Desert Fathers of Egypt knew only two (fairly short) set prayer times but sought ways of keeping the mind at prayer during the rest of the day and night. Palestinian monasticism knew more prayer times and developed the biblical notion of “seven times a day I praise thee.” Nevertheless, the purpose of such varying practices was that of acquiring “unceasing prayer.”

The observance of a fixed number of times of prayer, distributed throughout the day (and the night), which requires a certain self-discipline, has therefore, essentially the sole purpose of building bridges that enable our inconstant mind to make its way across the river of time. Through this practice the mind acquires that dexterity and facility of movement which no artist or craftsman can do without. To be sure, this is in part simply routine, but it is necessary in order to accomplish what is really at stake: the art – of carpentry, of playing the violin, of soccer… – and, indeed, of praying, which is the highest and most perfect activity of our mind, as Evagrius assures us. The better the training, the more perfectly natural the movement will seem to be, and the greater the joy, also, that we experience in the action. (76)

This training is not without trials however and “the most formidable opponent is a certain weariness, often indefinable, which can set in even when there is not lack of necessary leisure time” and which can lead to one doubting everything.

What should you do, then? You must force yourself, that is, activate the power of your will, so as to observe in any event the prescribed number of prayer times, even if the office itself has to be reduced to a minimum, one psalm, three Glory Bes, one Trisagion, and one genuflection – provided you are capable of it. If the soul’s oppression is too great, one must make use of the ultimate remedy.

If this battle against you increases in force, my Brother, and stops your mouth and does not allow you to recite the office, not even in the way that I have described above, then force yourself to get on your feet and walk up and down in your cell, while saluting the Cross and making prostrations before it, and our Lord in his mercy will allow [this battle] to pass. [Joseph Hazzaya].

When words seem to have lost all meaning, the only thing remaining is the physical gesture, a theme to which we shall later return and treat in detail. (77-79)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby discussing the distinction between “action” and “contemplation” in the life of prayer. These two pillars of the spiritual life have undergone a shift of meaning. “Theory” and “practice” have come to mean two completely different things from what they once meant, with the first coming to mean “untested conjecture” and the second “practical experience” – a complete transformation of the patristic understanding of these terms.

Action and contemplation, the two Latin expressions corresponding to these Greek terms, have not fared much better, either. The shifts in meaning and valuation that have occurred in this regard could very well be responsible for the reversal and revaluation of “practice” and “theory”, also. They go to the very roots of our modern understanding of ourselves and hence have an immediate effect on our understanding of the spiritual life as well.

An “active life” – in the spiritual sense – is probably understood by most people today to be a life of “active” love of neighbor, that is, one of charitable deeds. When the original religious motivation is gone, it becomes mere “social activism”.

In contrast to this “active life”, there is the “contemplative life”, as it is practiced by the so-called “contemplative orders” in the seclusion of their cloisters – a life, it is generally thought, which is reserved for only a few. Such a life consists, then, of contemplating (from contemplation the things of God. Prayer is regarded as the first and greatest occupation of these contemplative orders. (35)

The first activity is directed outwards and has therefore generally been seen as more useful by society than the second which is directed inwards. However, there has been a more recent shift, with

a new reevaluation of these two forms of life … Since activity easily deteriorates into “activism”, which ultimately leaves people empty, more and more lay people and religious are turning to various forms of “meditation”, and not a few of them even dedicate all of their available time to “contemplation”. (35-36)

All this would have seemed rather strange to the Fathers. Although they made a clear distinction between a praktikos and a theoretikos, their understanding of this was totally different, and ultimately praktikos and the theoretikos are one and the same person, for, in Evagrius’ analogy, the praktikos is to the theoretikos as Jacob is to Israel. For the Fathers, the “practical” is concerned with the passionate part of the soul, with fighting the passions by means of the virtues and an ascetical life.

This “spiritual method” consists essentially of “keeping the commandments”, an endeavour assisted by all those practices that we designate as “ascetical” in the widest sense. Their goal is, with God’s help, to restore to the soul its natural “health,” which consists of “apatheia”, freedom from the “sicknesses” (or passions – πάθη) that estrange it from God. Without this dispassionate character, which is attained by degrees, the spiritual life (and prayer with it) deteriorates into self-deception, and that removes man even further from God. (38)

While this “active life” does include activity, it is not simply directed outwards. Instead,

Praktike, rather, embraces the entire realm of relations that a human being has to himself, to his neighbour, and to things; it is therefore called “ethics” as well.

In the patristic perspective, theoria or contemplation is “the natural “horizon” of praxis, which gradually leads to it and which contains it in embryo. Therefore,

All of those (apparently) “external aspects” of prayer, to which in the following pages such great significance will be attributed, belong jointly and severally to “the practical manner of prayer”, although, being what they are, they already contain within themselves their goal, “the contemplative manner”, as their natural horizon. As is true of the praktike in general, they are bound up with difficulties, just like the life of constant self-denial that Jacob led for seven years as suitor of the beloved Rachel. And yet this is not a matter of “self-redemption”, however that may be understood! For the goal of praktike – “purity of heart”, which alone enables a human being to “see God” – is always the fruit of the cooperation of “God’s grace and human effort,” in that order! The “contemplative manner of prayer” itself is then, just like theoria in general, a “charism”, pure and simple, a “gift” of the Father to those whom he has found worthy of it. (40-41)

The work of the heart binds the external members. And it is evident whether a man does the work of the heart with discernment, following the example of the Fathers who have gone before us, if in the presence of external things he is not tied by material profit, despises gluttony, and is entirely free of anger. But if these three are found in a man, namely, the desire for material gain (whether to a greater or lesser degree), quick temper, and submission to gluttony, then, even though he seem to be a peer of the saints of old, know that his laxity in externals is produced by his lack of patience in inward matters; these things, however, are not produced by a discriminating disdain of one’s soul. If this were not so, how could he have despised bodily things and still not have acquired meekness? Discriminating disdain is accompanied by non-attachment, scorn of ease and the love of mankind. If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God is he inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honours him, nor displeased with someone who dishonours him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every kind of discipline accomplished by men of any degree.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I, 51, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 250.

If someone turns with his spiritual world to the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery[…]. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him – one that will demand his most dedicated efforts[…]. He will perceive that this divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil[…]. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, quoted in Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945(DLT / St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981) 13.

Such terrible times are coming, the world is so exhausted from its scabs and sores, it so cries out to Christianity in the secret depths of its soul, but at the same time it is so far removed from Christianity, that Christianity cannot and dare not show it a distorted, diminished, darkened image of itself. It should scorch the world with the flame of Christ’s love, it should go to the cross on behalf of the world. It should incarnate Christ Himself in it. Even if this cross, eternally raised anew, be foolishness for our new Greeks and a stumbling block for our new Jews, for us it will still be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

We who are called to be poor in spirit, to be fools for Christ, who are called to persecution and abuse – we know that this is the only calling given to us by the persecuted, abused, disdained, and humiliated Christ. And we do not only believe in the promises of blessedness to come: now, at this very moment, in the midst of this cheerless and despairing world, we already taste this blessedness whenever, with God’s help and at God’s command, we deny ourselves, whenever we have the strength to offer our soul for our neighbors, whenever in love we do not seek our own ends.

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters Series)186.

We men are easily prone to sins of thought. Therefore, He who has formed each heart individually, knowing that the impulse received from the intention constitutes the major element in sin, has ordained that purity in the ruling part of our soul be our primary concern. That faculty by which we are especially prone to commit sin surely merits great care and vigilance. As the more provident physicians offset physical weakness by precautionary measures taken in advance, so the Protector of us all and the true Physician of our souls takes possession first and with stronger garrisons of that part of the soul which He knows is most liable to sin. The actions performed by the body require time, favourable opportunity, physical exertion, assistance and other accessories. The movements of the mind, however, take place independently of time; they are performed without weariness; they are accomplished effortlessly; every occassion is appropriate for them.

Saint Basil the Great, “Give Heed to Thyself,” in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 432

The more I read about this mosque controversy, and the more hatred of Islam I see, the more horrified I become. It turns out that even Geert Wilders is involved, which should tell one quite a lot about the sort of people who are opposing the Cordoba Initiative. Anyway, I was trying to ignore this as it only arouses my own passions, when I dipped into a collection of essays by David Goa:  A Regard for Creation: Collected Essays (Synaxis Press, 2008). One in particular caught my attention, entitled “Zealous for Truth” and I then discovered that it is also available online. I find Goa’s article particularly helpful for the way in which he shows the relationship between zealotry and relativism, something that comes into particular focus in some current western discussions of Islam.

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

(more…)

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