The Ascetic Life Is For All Christians

I was listening to a contemporary Christian radio station today and they happened to be airing their personal newscast. The last story to air was a story about the smart phone game ‘Angry Birds.’ Apparently it is newsworthy these days to tell the whole nation that the latest video game is coming out on the internet, to compliment the phone app! I hope I don’t offend Angry Bird players out there, but  these games seem very childish and worldly and I would like to show you within this article that there is really no time for such nonsense.

I do indeed think that we should see this video-age as a symptom of our dying culture. Technology is a great thing, but if the technological industries do not begin to consider the bettering of humanity, than what good are they? Please don’t worry! I am not out to produce a moral pyramid of works by ranting about how we should not do this and not do that; rather, I would like to share a bit about what Orthodoxy calls the “ascetic life.”

“Asceticism is a strict, purposeful life, expressed in spiritual labors, that is, in prayer, contemplation, the directing of the mind toward God, frequently in conjunction with corresponding physical undertakings, and simultaneously with abstention from any negative activity and unnecessary natural satisfactions. This does not mean that asceticism must be the lot only of certain desert-dwellers or monks (“ascetics”). The Christian faith itself is built on self-denial, which to a certain degree is asceticism.” - Sergei Baikalov-Latyshev,  From Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 3

The Blessed Seraphim Rose specifically refers to having an “Orthodox ascetic worldview” in our day. He mentions how strengthening the Orthodox Church within America will be accomplished not by rationalizing the worship and other aspects of the faith through intellectual means, but through fully entering the ascetic life, a life of prayer, fasting, and shunning of worldliness (primarily modern culture). All throughout Seraphim Rose’s biography Not of This World, the author mentions how Fr. Rose sees America drawing deeper and deeper into the same worldliness that Russia fell into at the time communism took them over. He says that a “materialistic” worldview is being adopted by us just as it was in Russia.

Walking in the Light

We have reviewed aspects of the ascetic life before, and have determined that being a Christian means being an ascetic. Here is the article that was previously spoken about. The article listed speaks about the ascetic life within service. What we previously discussed in the Social Ministry tab of this website is how participating in a life of “sacrifice” can lead you to a higher calling in Christ. This sacrifice that God calls us to is not about sacrifice itself, but it is about enlightenment of spirit; it is about walking in what Christ calls “the light.”

What does it mean to walk in the light?

  • Christ says that HE is the light: John 9:5, “I am the light of the world.”
  • Saint Paul says in Ephesians 5:8, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”
  • Saint John says in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from sin.”

As a modern Christian I thought that to walk in the light meant to walk in knowledge and truth, to know the difference between good and evil and to know who God is in a constructive manner; that is, what He is like on a rational level that I can explain to everyone. After all, I am an “Evangelical!” What I did not discover as a modern Christian is how the Light of Christ is much more of an actual spiritual place than it is a spiritual concept, or string of concepts.

God desires that we come to a spiritual place with Him so as to experience a kingdom that is not so much about concepts as it is about enlightenment, about literally being able to walk in places that no one else can walk, but by those who are enlightened, thus “walking” in the Light, as Saint John puts it.

We are to LITERALLY walk the illuminated path. This does not mean that we are to just know what to do and where to go, but this means that we are to literally labor with our “spiritual muscles,” the spiritual muscles that we worked hard for in our spiritual gymnasium (Saint Paul likens our spiritual conditioning to that of an athlete in 2 Timothy 2:5).

It is our ‘Cross’ and ‘Persecution’ that We are Saved Through

“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” – Matthew 10:38

“ If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23

Saint Gregory the Theologian (4th century) calls the Christian walk “Suffering Orthodoxy.” “He who wishes to serve God,” says St. Basil the Great (4th century), “must prepare his heart for tribulations.” The Orthodox Christian faith is a suffering faith (II Timothy 3:12), because through suffering we turn away from what Satan and his people have to tempt us with to what Christ has to freely give us!

Archbishop Averky Taushev (1906-1976), of Jordanville Monastery says, “’Suffering Orthodoxy’ is why virtually all the righteous people we mentioned thus far were not spared persecution in one form or another: often, like Christ Himself,  at the hands of the very ministers of the Church. The one who follows his own conscience and the teachings of the Lord may end up paying dearly. And this is true in all aspects of modern life – at times even in the areas of religion and Church.” (Orthodox Life – May-June, 1976, p.30)

Think about what it would be like to make every decision as Christ made them. What would you say in every instance of life? What would you wear? What would you eat? What would you participate within your career? Would you wear the latest fashions that make you feel sexy? Would you eat like a king? Would you “toe the corporate line” with the corporation that takes advantage of humanity and generally could care less about her? Where would being 100% Christ-like lead you? I believe it would lead you to 100% persecution!

Christ says Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Taking up your cross is to take up the path to heaven. Saint Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus WILL BE persecuted.”

We walk in the light by actually walking in the dark, because Christ has fashioned us this way. This is why he says in the Psalter that the Word is a “lamp unto our feet.” He also uses the image of lamps in the Gospel account multiple times. He says in Luke 12:35: “Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.”

We use lamps to walk in dark places. This is walking in the light! It is not our Christian duty to find paradise on earth or to somehow create it. We are to be sojourners for Christ, kingdom builders! Wherever we are in life, whether it is in a Christian atmosphere or a pagan, we are to shun worldliness in order to find Christ. As Saint Augustine says, “Conquer yourself and the world lies at your feet.” We cannot live in the midst of temptation unless we are prepared to do battle, and this means to first conquer the enemy within us (our sinful desires) and, again, shunning the enemy that surrounds us.

The Shunning of Worldliness and the Illuminated Life

So what do video games – especially those that adults play on their phones – have to do with all this? Playing video games in and of themselves in not sinful, unless of course they have to do with sinful concepts, but what is sinful is to not redeem the time, as Saint Paul explains in Ephesians 5, and give ourselves to constant entertainment. God is not going to enlighten us through video games! That said, we certainly have the liberty to play them on occasion. But that is not what these handheld games are designed for. Their very design is to take up the so-called “dead time” of your day. There is a traditional Orthodox way of taking/redeeming time, it is the way of prayer and meditation, a crucial part of the ascetic life.

As we discussed in the article listed in bold, asceticism is about sacrificing liberty and pursuing communion with God. That particular article describes pursuing God through the means of serving the poor, but what about when you are going through your daily grind? How are we to live the ascetic life?

The Jesus Prayer is one way to “kill time.” Other ways to gain the momentum of time and walk in the light is to meditate and contemplate on the very adventure, the very “work” that God is bringing us through. This is how we exercise our spiritual muscles, enabling us to walk in the light of the moment.

I believe God is always presenting us with spiritual opportunities to exercise our spirituality, but it is most naturally and most potently found within a “non-worldly” path, one that does not partake of constant luxury and meaningless entertainment. We simply cannot see ourselves and what is both right and wrong with our souls if we are clouded by worldly rhythms.

There simply is no room in our minds and hearts for any voluntary worldliness. In America, we are bombarded by worldliness, already. We are hit with commercials (if we watch TV) billboards, crazy and perverted dress fashions, worldly music in most every store and restaurant, highly competitive sports and people constantly speaking of them…The list goes on! How could we possibly find space for more?

To be walking in the light, therefore, is to walk in the kingdom with illumination! When we are living what we must call the “ascetic life,” we are walking in a totally different set of external string of events, be they coincidences, accidents, etc. So pursuing what most Americans would consider a “boring” life  actually brings extremely exciting spiritual circumstances to a Christian’s life.  I have heard the Evangelical pastor, John Piper, call this ascetic pursuit by the name “Christian hedonism.” His theology is a topic for another day, but essentially what he says is what the early fathers teach, and that is that we must learn how to find pleasure in suffering for Christ. It is of course a unique kind of pleasure, not directly connected to the flesh, but directly connected to our spirit.

Finally, the illuminated life, the life that completely “walks in the light” is a life that is not easily achieved. I personally do not believe I have it yet, but I have been instructed by my spiritual father on how to get there. I understand that this life involves the pursuing of sainthood, not expecting to actually become a ‘canonized’ saint by the Church, but to press toward the attitude and zeal that the canonized saints had. This means being “in the spirit” as Saint Paul says. This means to be more involved with spiritual things than with worldly, to be what secular philosophers call “minimalists.” We live our personal bare minimum of luxury for a much greater cause “on earth as it is in heaven.”  And we gain the momentum of what we call “martyrdom” for Christ, constantly fleeing our self-centeredness for our own sanctification as well as for the sanctification of other people.

Comments

  1. Very interesting post, Robert. Stewardship is dienfitely important although I would venture to say it’s not a very popular catch phrase these days. It’s all too common for Christians to blend into the masses. We buy a home, fill it with junk we barely touch, and then thank God for all our blessings. As a Christian minimalist with a family that prevents me from packing up a backpack and taking on the world, I still believe there’s much we can do to make a difference at home. Evaluating our possessions, getting rid of what distracts us from what really matters, and being good stewards of what we have are really important. I hope to teach my kids to be better stewards and wiser consumers than I was and to use their time, talents and resources to bless others.

  2. Col 2:16-22

  3. Jonathan,
    That passage describes how the Christians were to protect themselves from the accusations of the Jews. It does not invalidate fasting or the ascetic life in general. Christ commanded us to fast and his ascetic life is an example to what we can strive for.

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