What Does Asceticism Look Like?

One of the temptations of being an Orthodox priest and pastor is to present a view of the spiritual life and the ascetic path by which one develops his or her relationship with God in the Church as if it were essentially one thing, as if there were only one way for everyone—and I knew what that way looks like.  A lot of the reason for this, in my own experience, has to do with what books or lives of saints I have found helpful or inspiring, and it has to do with what has worked in my own life.  Well, if I am to be completely honest, it is not always what has worked in my life.  Sometimes as a pastor I am tempted to do (and may in fact have sometimes done) what my bishop and many Church Fathers say I should never do: recommend to others ascetic disciplines that I have read about but I myself do not practice faithfully.

There is a kind of insecurity I experience as a priest (maybe others experience this too, I can only speak for myself).  I want to present to others the true teaching of the Church, the true way of salvation, but I myself fail in so many ways.  In fact, what sometimes happens is that I read something that convicts and inspires me in an area of my own weakness, for example an essay on how to prepare for Holy Communion or how to say daily prayers, or how to fast during lent, and before I have proved this convicting message in the furnace of my own life and experience, I share it with others.  I share it with others as the Orthodox way to prepare for Holy Communion, as the Orthodox way to say daily prayers, as the Orthodox way to fast during lent.  It may be that in my own mind I understand that most people who live in the world do not and perhaps cannot attain to such an ascetic practice—at least not quickly, at least not without working up to it, perhaps over a lifetime.  Heck, I can’t even practice it very well myself.  However, the conviction I feel about the teaching, about my need to enter more fully into that particular ascetic discipline, often comes across to parishioners in a way that confuses them and causes them to feel guilty and/or overwhelmed.

Now of course, if any of my parishioners comes to me and says, “But Father Michael, I can’t do this, I can’t make this work in my life,” I encourage them to start small and take baby steps, etc., etc.  However, I have begun to realize that I am causing some of my parishioners to feel a great deal of unnecessary and fruitless anxiety.   I am the source of the confusion and frustration that some of my parishioners feel because I have taken what inspires me (as a priest and leader in the Church) and have passed it on without fully digesting it myself first, without pre-chewing it (you might say), passing it on without sufficient commentary to my parishioners who are all at very different stages of growth in their spiritual life, many of whom are—at least in my parish—barely hanging in there, barely making it to Church on Sundays.

Also I think that I forget that there are many paths to holiness within the Church. For example, I have had many pregnant and nursing mothers confess to me that they feel somewhat guilty not fasting during lent, even though the Church tells us that pregnant and nursing women shouldn’t fast.  Somehow I have failed to teach my parish of mostly young families that carrying and nursing a child is itself an ascetical practice.  It’s not as though a young mother isn’t already giving her life away, isn’t already constantly saying no to herself.  I have often heard my bishop say—and I realize he is quoting a Church father because I have read it before, but can’t off the top of my head remember where—he says that the one who gives alms secretly, the one who bears illness cheerfully and the one who prays ceaselessly are all doing the same work. (That is a paraphrase, not a quote; but it is the gist of the quote.)  Fr. Thomas Hopko once said that the greatest witness for Christ  that one can make in the world today is to stay married.  I know some men and women—and I’m sure this is true in any parish—whose greatest ascetic labour is merely to stay married.  It is a martyrdom and ascesis for them rivalling St. Simeon’s pillar.

The canon for Matins for the departed righteous monastics that is chanted on Cheesefare Saturday tells us that there has been a great variety of different and unique ways of life that the various holy ascetics of the Church followed: “offering to God as fruit their many different ways of life.”  The canon goes on (and on and on) naming various monastic saints and briefly describing something of the unique ascetic path each of them followed to attain holiness.

Two of my favourite new saints, St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios are excellent contemporary examples of two very holy men who lived very different lives.  St. Paisios lived most of his adult life in monasteries, mostly on the Holy Mountain of Athos and kept all of the monastic disciplines and ways of life that are followed in that setting.  St. Porphyrios, on the other hand, began his monastic life on the Holy Mountain, but could not keep the fasting discipline, and for health reasons had to leave the holy mountain—he needed to eat animal protein regularly, mostly eggs and cheese to maintain his health.  St. Porphyrios went on to become the hospital chaplain at a huge hospital in the very busy and very secular city of Athens.    Following very different ways of life, both men became holy.  Both men became saints.

And if there is so much variety in ascetic practice among monastics, shouldn’t we then also expect a great deal of variety in practice and way of life among married people?  How many hidden saints are there whose great ascetical feat is to love and care for a handicapped child or care for an aging parent or love a difficult spouse or continue to manage a youth camping program even though their own children have now outgrown the camp, but there is no one else willing to do it?  How many men and women are increasing the ‘talent of Grace’ given to them by just getting the whole family to Church on any given Sunday (clothed and in their right mind, as the scripture says).  For them, perhaps, just getting there is preparation for Holy Communion.  The many “Lord have mercies” prayed secretly and under their breath all morning long as they have gotten their children and a sluggish spouse rounded up, cleaned up and dressed up and off to Church, those secret “Lord have mercies” have been more preparation for Holy Communion than all of the canons and services and prayers in all of the service books and prayer books combined.  Yes, asceticism does take many forms.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that the Church doesn’t have prescribed rules for fasting and prayers—but like all prescriptions that one might find in a medical manual, it is up to the doctor to see that the prescription is tailored to the actual needs and conditions of the patient.  It seems to me that it would be very unwise for a doctor to give all of his or her patients copies of the same prescription, without first knowing each one’s condition well and telling them how the prescription is to be applied depending on each person’s condition. What I am saying is that as a priest and pastor I have to be careful how I dispense the Church’s spiritual and ascetical prescriptions lest I unintentionally cause more harm than good, lest I cause despair instead of hope, lest I sow guilt and confusion where I had thought I was sowing inspiration or just plain information.  And this is especially the case when sharing inspiration or information that I myself have not fully practiced and found grace in over a long period of time.

You know, it may certainly be the case for most single adults and most priests for that matter, who have no one they are responsible for except themselves to get up, get cleaned, get dressed and get to Church, that twenty minutes or even an hour spent in prayer reminding them of their own unworthiness and the great value of the Spiritual Pearl they are about to receive is necessary to prepare them to receive the Holy Mysteries.  However, to put such a requirement on a parent or other caregiver who has spent at least two hours in spiritual warfare and ascetic labour getting the family ready for Church, may not only be redundant, but may indeed be harmful.  It may be piling guilt and frustration onto a person who is already pushed to his or her ascetical extreme.

My beloved wife has pointed out to me that I am somewhat of a maximalist.  If there is a prayer that can be said, I usually pray it.  If there is a service that can be offered, I offer it—even if no one shows up.  I find life in praying, especially in praying the liturgical services of the Church.  My wife however, not so much.  For her, arriving on Sunday mornings toward the end of Matins is enough.   During Lent, she will usually attend one mid-week service—usually the Wednesday Presanctified Liturgy.  For her, it is enough.  And someone who didn’t know her very well might think, “Oh my, what a terrible example for a Khouria, doesn’t she realize that Great Vespers and Matins are required preparation to receive Holy Communion?  Doesn’t she know that the Great Compline and the Akathist Hymn during lent are prescribed services necessary to prepare us for Holy Week?”  However, what this person cannot see are the Akathist hymns and canons she chants in the middle of the night.  What they don’t see are the hours she spends each day prayerfully painting icons.  What they of course could never see are the tears of pain and frustration she has shed as she has struggled over the years to find her way to an ascetical practice that is life giving for her.  What they don’t understand is that within the Church, there is more than one path toward holiness.

And so as we make our way through the ‘Great Arena of the Fast,’ let’s be careful how we suggest or inform one another about the ascetical practices and traditions that are provided for us in the Orthodox Church.  The goal is holiness, not conformity.  Let’s not forget Jesus’ warning to the Jewish lawyers when He said of them that they load people down with burdens hard to bear but do not lift a finger to help them.