Thursday, 27 October 2005

The Meaning of Asceticism

The meaning of asceticism is to combat the eight passions that we have just discussed over the last few days. There is no other reason to engage in asceticism except to conquer the eight passions and to acquire the virtues which negate them. If your asceticism is not directed to these two goals, then there is something wrong with it. There is no other way to attain to the higher states of the Jesus Prayer except by making serious progress in conquering the eight passions and by acquiring the corresponding virtues. This is fundamental: It is not by breathing exercises that we make progress in the Jesus Prayer. It is by negating the eight passions and by acquiring the virtues. It is this Christian virtue that attracts the grace of the Holy Spirit to help us pray.

So for both the monk and the lay person, the ascetical goal is to conquer the eight passions and to acquire the corresponding virtues.

This requires a guide, and for several reasons.

First, we are not always able to understand what our passions really are. The guide, even if he or she is imperfect, sometimes has insight into what our problems really are.

Next, St John of the Ladder points out that we each have our governing passion. It is this passion that we must fight against most of all. There is no point concentrating on heavy bodily asceticism if our ruling passion is vainglory: vainglory is treated in another way. Similarly for the other passions.

Third, each of the passions has certain specific therapies. Only another person can prescribe the right therapy and the amount of it to the beginning ascetic. The beginning ascetic does not yet have the God-given discernment necessary for this.

Next, some passions are healed by inserting the ascetic into certain social situations, including in some cases the necessity for the monk or lay person to be subordinate to another: obedience is the main treatment, at least in the beginning, for pride and vainglory. Similarly, some monks need to be in a coenobium for the sake of their passions; some in other monastic settings. In general, the very act of subordinating our judgement to that of another is the beginning of the healing of our pride, the worst of all the passions.

In the case where the monk or lay person is in psychotherapy for whatever reason, he is going to have to discuss very, very seriously with both his confessor and his therapist his ascetical program. There is a danger here of the therapist and the spiritual director pulling the monk or lay person in different directions. The therapist and the spiritual director are going to have to come to some sort of agreement about what their program is going to be.

Next, along the way there are various temptations and thoughts that arise for the monk or lay person. Only a guide drawing on his own experience can correctly guide the beginner.

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