Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Notes on a positive account of the ascetic impulse

by Liam Heneghan
A SPIRITED AND POSITIVE ACCOUNT OF ASCETICISM IS PRESENTED by Kallistos Ware. Ware is a lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and a bishop in the Greek Orthodox tradition. With G. E. H. Palmer and Philip Sherrard, he is a translator of the Philokalia, a collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by monks and saints of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. A recurrent theme in the Philokalia is Orthodox prayer tradition called hesychasm. This practice emphasizes a withdrawal from the senses into prayer. The fruits of ascetic practice are freedom (who is more free than she who has nothing), beauty, and in joy. Two basic aspects of asceticism in particular illustrate his case: anachoresis and enkrateia. The former term denotes withdrawal, the later self control.
The ascetic leaves home, withdrawing to another place, traditionally a wilderness. This gesture of exile itself is neither positive nor negative; though typically this has been seen as world-denying, turning one’s back on fellow-humans and concerning oneself exclusively with personal salvation. The self-seclusion of the hermit is hard to regard as anything other than selfish, and confers little benefit to the community. Ware recognizes a pattern in the life of many of the ascetics of a flight followed by a return. Even if the return is not back to the fleshpots of the city to minister there, oftentimes the ascetic makes himself available for the spiritual leadership of disciples who follow him into the wilds. St Anthony of Egypt (231-356) is paradigmatic here. He remains in the desert but is no longer alone, enclosed as he was for two decades in an abandoned fort, but now offering spiritual guidance to visitors, and taking disciples under his care.
The pattern of flight and return, even if return is an attenuated one, for instance ministry to others in the desert, is hardly a universal one. Historically many ascetics did not return, and lived out their lives in isolation. So should one regard this as life denying? Ware argues against this viewpoint; the prayers of hermits, he suggests is a service to the broader community. The prayerful union of ascetic with God is a source of strength for his fellow humans, in this view of things. The wilderness, to which the ascetic withdraws, is both a place where one meets God but also where one confronts demons. In such a place the prayerful monk defends the community on whose fringes he lives. In this active notion of prayer, the solitary not only seeks her own salvation but intercedes on behalf, and defends the civilization from which she has withdrawn. Even in working on her own spiritual salvation, in transforming herself through prayer, the solitary transforms the world for others. Ware quotes St Seraphim in support of this idea: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and then thousands around you will be saved.” Pushing this argument a little further the self-transformation of the ascetic may in fact be the more effective way of transforming of others. Thus, the singular pursuit of one’s own spiritual salvation may be the least selfish thing the ascetic can do.
The control of the self referred to enkrateia can likewise be seen as having both positive and negative aspects. Negatively it can be thought of as implying an unwholesome attitude to the body, to our corporeal existence and to the material world in which we life. Despite the themes of extreme self-mortification encountered in many of the ascetic texts, others however, speak of moderation in practices of abstinence. Indeed, some of the instructions on ascetic practice sound similar to those emerging from “self-help” manuals. St Barsanuphius of Gaza enjoins us to “always rise from the meal feeling like we should have liked to eat a little more.” To distinguish positive from negative enkrateia Ware, drawing upon work by Dom Cuthbert Butler distinguishes “natural” from “unnatural” asceticism. The distinction between natural and unnatural asceticism hinges on attitude to the body and to the works of God. A curtailing of the appetites, lengthy prayer vigils, silence might be considered asceticism of a natural variety. Natural asceticism ultimately entails a commitment to a life of material simplicity. Use of instruments of self torture or other special forms of mortification is considered unnatural. Ware provides the following instructive example: “To refrain from marriage and sexual activity is natural asceticism; to castrate oneself is unnatural.” The latter betrays an unwholesome loathing for material creation. Put another way asceticism is a means by which we refine our physical existence, transforming it into a partner for our spiritual ambitions rather than destroying it.
Even if we accept that at least some of the early Christian ascetics cultivated a relatively healthy attitude towards the body it was not uncommon to declare war on the passions. The Greek Christian fathers generally regard the passions as something negative and contrary to nature. The condemnation, according to Ware, is not universal. Anger and desire are useful. The aim would not be to eliminate such passion, but to redirect them.
Other ascetic principles, like hesychia (stillness), likewise can be regarded as affirmative rather than negative. Without asceticism none of us, says Ware, is authentically human.

Ware, K The Way of the Ascetics: Negative or Affirmative? In Wimbush V. L. and Valantasis R (1995) Asceticism. Oxford University Press.

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