Nicholas Berdyaev, a 19th century Russian philosopher, once said, “The world is moving towards a new spirituality and a new mysticism; in it there will be no more of the ascetic world view.” (Orthodox Life, Jordanville NY, no. 6)
We see within the Acts of the Apostles and other early writings of the Church that the Christians forsook everything to become a community for Christ. They were offered to worship their God freely, as long as they would not proclaim their God to be above all other gods. They refused, of course, and were driven into the catacombs to spend their days worshiping and awaiting martyrdom. It was through this life of struggle that the Christians came to truly love God. They lived what we call the “ascetic” life, a life of self-denial and self-mortification for Christ.
When the Church was legalized by Emperor Constantine, many of these dedicated Christians fled to the mountains to continue their ascetic life, which is where monastic communities come from. Other Christians stayed within the imperial Church and worked out their salvation amongst the tares. All throughout the readings of the lives of the Saints we see how the saints constantly rebuked and warned the Church about becoming a part of the world’s culture and not of the Kingdom’s.
The Church thrived through the first millennium of the imperial age. The imperial mandate of the emperors did indeed free the Church to do much good for society, creating hospitals, shelters, schools, etc. This was the very ministry of the monarchy, the philanthropic nature of God manifesting itself in His Kingdom. All throughout the history of the empire we can see very elaborate philanthropic works instituted by the monarchy, working in conjunction with the Church. If a Christian wanted to struggle for Christ and discover His riches, the Christian would merely need to involve his or her self with the philanthropic ministry of the empire. Many, of course, still lived within the monastic communities, carrying out the ascetic life in wondrous ways that many within the empire simply could not experience due to the overwhelming temptations of luxury and overall hedonism.
Today, the ascetic worldview is hardly spoken of within many churches. Few are willing to offend their modern brother – in the name of love, many times – by proclaiming that such a way of life is necessary for us to experience the grace of God. Others believe what many Protestants believe, and that is that God has somehow blessed our country and even them in specific, to carry out luxurious lifestyles and live without any Christian struggle. Struggle, to many today is something to be avoided rather than embraced. Struggling in and of itself is not what is necessary, but struggling within the realm of truth and spirit is what is necessary, struggling within the philanthropic and sacramental commandments of Christ. We fast, venerate the saints, worship as often as we possibly can, receive the heavenly mysteries, beginning our Lord’s Day worship on sundown Saturday; and we sacrifice our time and luxuries for our needy family and community. God commands us to give our entire lives to the Kingdom so that we may anticipate the fullness of life eternal.
The ascetic life can be in many ways sacrificial, but this does not mean we all need to become monastics. The monastic life and the married life are both ascetic, in different ways, yet also in many similar ways. We should be inspired by the monastics, who struggle within their salvation and who shun worldliness. We can do this too, perhaps not on the same level but nonetheless with the same spirit of humility and zeal.
If you are struggling, do not give up, struggle in Christ for the eternal reward; do not give up hope, knowing that He has a plan for you to prosper with heavenly riches to share with those that He has brought into your life, and will bring into your life!