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«UNIT 3B: PASTORAL AND ASCETICAL THEOLOGY Lecture 75: Asceticism I. The Purpose of Asceticism—To Create Alternative Individuals and Communities The ...»

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Lecture 75: Asceticism

I. The Purpose of Asceticism—To Create Alternative Individuals and Communities

The Greek word ascesis has generally been linked to athletic training and associated with St Paul‟s

claim to “have fought the good fight … finished the course … [and] kept the faith” (2 Tim 4.7; see John

Anthony McGuckin, The Westminister Handbook to Patristic Theology (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 34). However, both Greek philosophers and Christian theologians introduced a moral dimension to the training necessary to receive “the crown of righteousness” for the victor in the race (2 Tim 4.8; cf. 1 Cor 9.24 “the prize”). In essence, Christian asceticism has two sides—“the negative one of selfdenial and the positive one of the following of Christ” (F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, p. 113).

Rather than focus on “lone figures or histrionic practices,” Professor Vincent Wimbush of Union

Theological Seminary and Columbia University proposes that to understand asceticism the place to begin is:

by trying to account for the formation and development of individuals and communities that define themselves by embracing certain worldviews and orientations deemed „other-worldly‟… Such work is constituted by practices and strategies that function both defensively and offensively: they help communities and individuals not only to take flight—physical, psychical, psycho-social, intellectual, spiritual flight— from „the world‟, but also to fend off, critique, and reshape that world.

In so far as such communities and individuals define themselves as other-worldly and employ strategies and practices for creating, shaping, and maintaining new identities, communities, and world-views, they and their strategies and practices can be deemed ascetic. (p. 45 in Adrian

Hastings [Ed.], The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2000) In other words, if we do not like certain ungodly practices and attitudes in our present world or in ourselves, we need to strive to define, create, shape and maintain new practices and attitudes. We need to build ourselves as alternative individuals and create alternative communities, committed to Christ. That is precisely the task that confronts this series of lectures in Pastoral and Ascetical Theology.

Such a perspective is entirely in keeping with the dual focus of the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Father Dumitru Staniloae, that “we can‟t be resurrected with Christ if we don‟t first die with Him”, but we should also acknowledge the “positive purpose” of asceticism, which is “thefortification of our [human] nature and its liberation from the worms of sin that gnaw at [our nature] and hasten its ruin” (Orthodox

Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar, South Canaan, PA:

St Tikhon‟s Orthodox Theological Seminary Press, 2002, p. 25). Father Staniloae defines asceticism as “that part of spirituality that deals with the rules and efforts that bring [a human being] to the first step of the ascent to perfection, to contemplation and union with God” (pp. 23-24). The question then arises: Over the centuries, how have individual Christians and Christian communities sought to be ascetic?1 II. The Historical Background: Seeking Formation in Christ The struggle of an individual or of a community to be formed in Christ is perennial—that is, constant and continuing, over time, with experiences of growth and experiences of dying. In The Tutor, St Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) calls Jacob an ascetic, because of the patriarch‟s struggle with God in the form of an angel (See Staniloae, p. 23, n. 5). A close reading of Gen 32.24-32 suggests why St Clement proposed such an analogy. In the midst of an evenly-balanced wrestling contest, neither God nor Jacob could prevail; and it was God who asked for the contest to end as dawn broke.

However, Jacob refused to end the contest, even though he had already been injured in the thigh:

[Jacob said] „I will not let you go unless you bless me.‟ So [God] said to him, „What is your name?‟ And [Jacob] said, „Jacob‟ [meaning „he deceives‟] [God] said, „Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel‟ [meaning „he struggles with God‟]; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.

What is striking here is that Jacob continues to wrestle even though he has been hurt, and that by asking for a blessing Jacob recognises that it is God with whom he is struggling. The combination of persistence in the struggle and asking for God‟s blessing empowers Jacob to receive a new identity, grounded in the reality that by receiving God‟s blessing Jacob becomes God‟s servant, rather than a person seeking achievement in his own strength.2 We each engage in the same struggle with God.

St Clement‟s interpretation of Jacob as an ascetic is a sign of how the goal of Christian spirituality is mystical union with God (cf. Staniloae, p. 23).3 Such union begins in this life, but is only completed after we die (see Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Crestwood, NY: SVSP, 1974, pp. 43-44). The key issue in striving for such union is formation in Christ as St Paul cries out in Gal 4.19: “My children... I am again in labour until Christ is formed in you.” This process of formation seeks to empower any Christian to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephes 4.24). Such formation in Christ requires a person to be both active and passive—active in being sufficiently ascetic to seek God, but also passive in accepting God‟s grace, as we each recognise that “God takes the initiative. We have only to follow. It [Our being formed in Christ] belongs to Him alone” (Staniloae, p. 24).

Wimbush concludes his article on “Asceticism” with the reflection that “Christian existence required some sort of expression of the ascetic, of critique and de-formation and re-formation of the world. For most of Christian history, the battle about asceticism has been not whether Christian piety should be associated with it, but about the type, intensity of expression, and meaning of the ascetic that is appropriate or required” (Hastings [Ed.], The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, p. 46) A note for Gen 32.24 in the New American Bible is insightful: “Jacob had struggled all his life to prevail, first with Esau, then with Laban. Now, as he was about to reenter Canaan, he was shown that it was with God that he must „wrestle‟. It was God who held his destiny in His hands.” Cf. Gen 32.28 note.

Although there is a strong link between asceticism and mysticism in Judaism, there is also a firm Jewish affirmation of life in the world and a rejection of original sin and human corruption. Jewish attitudes to asceticism at the time of Jesus are considered briefly in the next section of this lecture. See also the article, “Asceticism” in Jewish Encyclopedia which seeks to balance Jewish optimism with “certain ascetic tendencies” at: www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1888&letter=A&search=asceticism.

So the history of asceticism is primarily a story of how individual persons and communities have sought God over the ages. History is a story: “Hi! Story.” For example, as Wimbush comments in a

single sentence that covers five centuries:

In terms of intensity, types of practice, and motivations, the simple renunciatory practices of the primitive Christian communities of lst-century Syria were different from Basil‟s and Benedict‟s more institutionalised, systematized, and moderate monastic asceticisms (4th century and onwards), and from the daring asceticisms of the Syrian Stylites (5th century and onwards). (p. 46 in Hastings) However particular individuals and communities may have expressed their asceticism in different times, St Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) is right to note that asceticism is primarily “the slaying of death” in us. As we experience the death of the old person and an “extension of baptism by will” we are united with Christ, both in his crucifixion and his resurrection, both in his sufferings and his glory (cf. Staniloae, pp. 24III. Asceticism in the Gospels: Christ‟s Personal Approach to Asceticism on Earth The ascetic framework in which Jesus began his public ministry had been firmly set out by St John the Baptist calling the Jewish people to repentance (Mat 3.2). Some Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, but it is not clear that he accepted them, calling both groups “a brood of vipers” (Mat 3.7). In fact, as both Josephus and Philo relate, it was a third Jewish sect, the Essenes, who had a firm commitment to the ascetic life as a means of sanctifying their minds and purifying their bodies (see Philo, Quod Omnis Probus Liber sit 75-80 and Josephus, War ii. 119f, 122, 137-42, 152f., 162-6, in C. K. Barrett (Ed.), The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, Rev. Ed., London: 1987, SPCK, pp. 157-162).

Jesus did not identify himself with any of these three Judaic sects, but he was clearly aware of them, as they were to become aware of him.

After being baptised by the deeply ascetic person of John, Jesus immediately “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mat 4.1). In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Vol.

1, New York: Herrick, 1886) the Jewish Christian theologian, Alfred Edersheim (1825-1875) has reflected on the relevance of the Old Testament context of struggling to overcome temptation: Jesus was acting in the pattern of the Patriarchs and Moses in being “tried and proved” implementing the words of the Midrash, the Jewish commentary on The Torah, that: “The Holy One, blessed be His Name, does not elevate a man to dignity till He has first tried and searched him; and if he stands in temptation, then He raises him to dignity” (p. 292).4 By placing the stress on Jesus overcoming temptation, rather than on fasting as an end in itself,

Edersheim draws together the human and Messianic aspects of Jesus‟ action:

Edersheim also comments that Christ‟s temptation by the devil “cannot have been derived from Jewish legend.” However, Edershim acknowledges the relevance of the 40 day fasts of Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah in the desert as linked to “the three stages of the history of the Covenant” in which “Moses was its giver, Elijah its restorer, the Messiah its renewer and perfecter… Moses fasted in the middle, Elijah at the end, Jesus at the beginning of His ministry” (pp. 292-294).

… in whatever Jesus overcame, we can overcome. Each victory which He has gained secures its fruits for us who are his disciples… and as each temptation marks a human assault (assault on humanity), so it also marks a human victory (of humanity). But He is also the Messiah;

and alike the assault and the victory were of the Messiah…. (p. 294) For Edersheim, and for us5, all three temptations in the desert are resolved “into the one question of absolute submission to the Will of God, which is the sum and substance of all obedience” (p. 302).

In both the temptation in the desert at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus on earth and in the crucifixion at the end of Jesus‟ ministry on earth the focus is on Jesus‟ determination to do the will of His father, not his own will (Mat 26.39; cf. Edersheim, p. 307). Jesus accepted the Cross, but He did not seek it. We are placed in the same position—that we must learn to be sufficiently ascetic to take up the cross of Christ and to follow him (Mat 16.24; Mk 8.34; Lk 14.27). However, in our struggle, the goal is not to be ascetic for its own sake, but rather to follow Jesus in engaging in the struggle to be obedient to God‟s will, as He and we perceive it.6 IV. Asceticism in the Early Church: Luke‟s Perspective in the Book of Acts The word askeō, used in Acts 24.16 is often translated as “to exercise” or “to strive,” but its literal meaning is “to practice myself” (NASB note for Acts 24.16). In Dictionary of the Christian Church, Cross and Livingstone begin their entry on “asceticism” by suggesting that this is the only occasion in the New Testament in which the word is used (p. 113).7 But what does it mean “to practice one‟s self” in the context of ascetic striving? In the King James translation, Timothy urges his readers to “exercise thyself unto godliness,” or as the NIV translation has it, to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4.7). Let‟s look more closely at Acts 24.16 where Paul defends himself before the Roman Governor Felix with the words: “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men” (KJ) or as NIV translation has it, “I do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Whatever the translation, it is clear that askeō (“to exercise/to strive”) has both a physical and a moral meaning, but it is not immediately clear precisely how much asceticism is to be associated with this physical and moral striving.

In an outstanding commentary, Acts (London: SCM Press, 2006), the Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikan notes that both Paul before Festus and his Jewish wife Drusilla (Acts 24.25) as well as Peter before Cornelius (Acts 10.30) are trying to work out the degree of ascetic self-denial that is appropriate to followers Edersheim urges that for Christ and for us “temptation and victory” are “the condition of spiritual greatness. It could not have been otherwise in a world hostile to God, nor yet in man, whose conscious choice determines his position. No crown of victory without previous contest, and that proportionately to its brightness; no moral ideal without personal attainment and probation.” p.


Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky reflects that “the authentic fulfilment” from following Christ “is impossible without some degree of self-renunciation, self-sacrifice: it demands struggle.” Strikingly, the “Russian word podvig most commonly means „struggle,‟ but sometimes must be translated more specifically as „asceticism‟ or „ascetic exploit‟”. (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005, p. 328 and 328n.

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