Spiritual Temperaments – The Ascetic (4 of 9)

April 18, 2010

Saint Anthony the Great (c.251-356)

Asceticism has usually been associated with the harsh discipline of religious monks from various traditions or denominations, and also with pioneering religious figures such as John the Baptist or Elijah the Prophet (often portrayed together in Eastern Orthodoxy iconography). Of course, ascetic practice – that is the practice of denying the body pleasures and comforts – is not just limited to the religious domain, many athletes and military personnel also practice self-denial to aid them in the achievement of their goals. Perhaps, where religious asceticism differs is that the physical denial is intended to go hand-in-hand with a growing spiritual development, away from the love of self toward the love of others be they God or one’s neighbour or even one’s enemy.

A wonderful, if sometimes eccentric compendium of stories about human beings taking upon themselves extreme asceticism can be found  in the Penguin Classic book translated and introduced by Sister Benedicta Ward – The Desert Fathers – Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. The work collects many tales, sayings and anecdotes about the lives of the Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third, fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era.

The stories of the Desert Fathers are sources of inspiration, humour and awe. The men (and women) who practiced such extreme asceticism, living lives of incredible simplicity and purity in the harsh conditions of the Egyptian desert offers us written verbal icons of what the human spirit and body is capable of in devotion to God and to one another. The monks often ate very little, limiting their diet to simple soup, bread and salt water. In one story a monk overcomes his desire to eat a cucumber by hanging it above him in his cell! At the same time, the monks often practiced night prayer  and vigils by staying awake most of the night in worship and prayer to God. Most of us today would find such practices unbearable and yet, if we are to believe the ancient stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, these people developed a whole new ascetic form of life and community through making routine such behaviour.

Perhaps, for me as someone who admittedly struggles with asceticism, there are wonderful tales within the compendium that talk of the older monks helping the younger monks to gain an insight into the importance of not judging one another, mercy and grace. In such examples, the extreme austerity of the desert disciples’ lives is mixed with a deep awareness of their own shortcomings and struggles with sin, and therefore an attitude of great compassion with those who also battle with personal failings, spiritual attacks and worldly temptation.

One such story follows:


A brother who was hurt by another brother went to the Theban Sisois and said, “I want to get back at a brother who has hurt me.”

The hermit begged him, “Don’t do that, my son, leave vengeance in the hands of God.”

But he said, ” I can’t rest till I get my own back.”

 The hermit said, “My brother, let us pray.” He stood and said, “O God, we have no further need of you, for we can  take vengeance by ourselves.”

The brother heard it and fell at the hermit’s feet, saying, “I won’t quarrel with my brother any longer; I beg you to forgive me.”

Page 173, The Desert Fathers – Sayings of the Early Christian Monks 

Asceticism attracts and empowers many people to simplify their lives and set aside time and energy to worship God in a life without external distractions. For most of us a degree of asceticism will help us to overcome selfish habits and free us to make the most of the good gifts we have received in life, often which we can overlook when we become deeply involved with worldly fashions, trends and pressures to conform to society’s (and Church’s) expectations of the ‘good life’. Aceticism offers a pathway to liberation through simplicity and  physical self-denial. Bishop Kalistos Ware wrote in his book The Orthodox Way, that the ancient Christians talked about denying the ‘flesh’ – that is the fallen, selfish, inward directed craving of the soul out of harmony with God – in order to win a ‘body’ the good, wonderful, created, physical gift to people, which God always intended us to be free to enjoy.

The ascetic’s mantra might well be  – “Deny the flesh, to gain a body.”



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