Bodily Asceticism and Spiritual Health
One of the most important aspects of the Christian patrimony involves the universal counsel on the value of bodily asceticism. Just as doctors encourage exercise for the sake of physical and psychological well-being, so the spiritual physicians of the Church encourage bodily asceticism for the health of soul and body. To those that are sick with spiritual ailments, bodily asceticism can be an important part of their cure. To those who are in a state of spiritual health, bodily asceticism can help keep them spiritually fit and ready to make sacrifices for the love of others. Sadly, this sage, perennial advice about asceticism has all but been abandoned in the West. When it is discussed, it is unfortunately done so in terms of penance, as though it were a punishment, instead of a privilege of loving God with all one’s strength and with all one’s might.
In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “the ascetic life has a number of aims, such as hindering thoughts of pleasure, cutting off bodily passions, and curbing habitual self-indulgence. When these aims are met, corporal asceticism further prevents sins related to those passions from materializing bringing a balance to the body’s temperament, a clear conscience to the mind, contrition to the heart and purity of the nous. In other words, the ascetic life makes it easier for the believer to acquire virtue and observe the commandments of Christ. Abstinence also brings the grace of God in the form of spiritual nourishment, consolation, joy, and experience, for as Saint Thalassius puts it, ‘How God treats you depends upon how you treat your body.’”
Asceticism plays a beneficial role in restoring harmony within the soul, for asceticism means making choices on the basis of the Truth of Who Christ is, what that Truth means to the soul, and what the soul can become in that Truth, and then, most importantly, acting on those choices in concrete ways that involve how one thinks, what one desires, and what one is willing to fight for. These choices, made flesh in ascetic endeavor, allow the body and the mind to serve with humility the nous, that part of the soul in intimate communion with Christ. In this way, wise asceticism heals and preserves the health of soul and body.
A wonderful literary example of how wise asceticism can heal the disordered state of the soul may be found in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, the main character, has committed the heinous crime of murder and no longer finds peace or harmony in himself, in others, or in his surroundings. He mistrusts his own judgments, his perceptions, and others. He is unable to recognize truth, love, or beauty. His evil actions have coalesced into a hell of his own making, an inner prison in which goodness, truth, and beauty are perceived as torments to his soul. The will no longer knows what to will; the desire has lost a sense of what is really desirable; and there is no longer anything that appears worth fighting for. But worst of all, God seems so very far away.
When we act in ways that disregard the truth of God and His love, we too can find ourselves in dark places similar to Raskolnikov’s highly disordered state. The path out of such a hellish existence is repentance and the praxis of ascetical labor under the guidance of a spiritual father. The way out is hard work with a gentle God or synergy if we wish to use the Greek term.
In his work, Passions and Virtues According to Saint Gregory Palamas, Anestis Keselopoulos writes, “Man’s purification is the work of the grace of God, but it also requires the cooperation or ‘synergy’ of man. It becomes a reality through the struggle of the human will, which is richly strengthened by divine grace. Only when this divine gift meets with human cooperation is man in a position to become personally acquainted with salvation. This ‘meeting is not only the solid and indispensable starting point for the process of purification; it is also what bears witness to God’s great love for man.”
In the last blog post, I set forth some practical tips on how one might apply ascetical practices in everyday speech and interactions with others. In order for these tips to bear fruit, they need to be accompanied by the ascetical labor of fasting, repentant prayer, confession, vigil, and cutting off of the will for the sake of the love of God.
In the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov casts aside his desire to become the Nietzschean man-God and chooses to repent before the God-man. And this begins the reordering of his soul. He confesses his sin and commences the long journey of ascetical labor required to stifle the passions that haunted him throughout the novel, but also to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the God Who dares to forgive. The journey of Raskolnikov is the Christian journey from disoriented pride and disordered passions to purposeful humility and peaceful grace. It is the divine gift God has offered each one of us since the fall. It is our decision whether we accept His gift by deciding to act and then acting in deed.