The Way of the Ascetics: Negative or Affirmative?
An Entry into Freedom?
"Asceticism means the liberation of the human person," states the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1873-1948). He defines asceticism as "a concentration of inner forces and command of oneself, and he insists: "Our human dignity is related to this." Asceticism, that is to say, leads us to self-mastery and enables us to fulfill the purpose that we have set for ourselves, whatever that may be. A certain measure of ascetic self-denial is thus a necessary element in all that we undertake, whether in athletics or in politics, in scholarly research or in prayer. Without this ascetic concentration of effort we are at the mercy of exterior forces, or of our own emotions and moods; we are reacting rather than acting. Only the ascetic is inwardly free.
The Roman Catholic Raimundo Pannikar adds that asceticism frees us in particular from fear: "True asceticism begins by eliminating the fear of losing what can be lost. The ascetic is the one who has no fear." The prisoner Bobynin, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle, expresses a genuinely ascetic attitude when he says to Abakumov, the Minister of State Security, "I've got nothing, see? Nothing! ... You only have power over, people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything he's no longer in your power - he's free again." How much more free is the one who has not been robbed of everything but with ascetic freedom has given it up by his own choice!
While Berdyaev regards asceticism as an entry into freedom, another Russian Orthodox thinker, Father Paul Florensky (1882-1943), links it with beauty: "Asceticism produces not a good but a beautiful personality." He would surely have welcomed the fact that our conference is devoting two of its sessions to the "aesthetics of asceticism." In the eyes of Jacob of Serug (c.449-521), the asceticism of Symeon the Stylite - altogether horrifying by our standards - made possible a revelation of the saint's beauty: "Good gold entered the crucible and manifested its beauty." Even Symeon's gangrenous foot was from the spiritual point of view an object full of beauty: "He watched his foot as it rotted and its flesh decayed. And the foot stood bare like a tree beautiful with branches. He saw-that there was nothing on it but tendons and bones."
In Greco-Roman antiquity, ascetic practice was regarded equally as the pathway to happiness and 'joy. The Cynics saw rigorous self-denial as "part of askesis (training) for happiness." Philo's Therapeutai assembled at great festivals "clad in snow white raiment, joyous but with the height of solemnity," and celebrated the feast by dancing together. The same joyful note re-echoes in the mimra attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-373), On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:
There is no weeping in their wanderings and no grieving in their gatherings;
the praises of the angels above surround them on every side.
There is no distress in their death, nor walling at their departing;
for their death is the victory with which they conquer the adversary.
Freedom, beauty, joy: that is what asceticism meant to Berdyaev, Florensky, and the Syrian monks. But most people in our present-day world have a radically different perception of what asceticism implies: to them it signifies not freedom but submission to irksome rules; not beauty but harsh rigor; not joy but gloomy austerity. Where does the truth lie? The case against asceticism is often stated, and is thoroughly familiar to all of us. Rather than restate it once again, let us try to discover what can be said in defense of the ascetic life. This we can best do by considering two basic components in ascetic practice anachoresis (withdrawal) and enkrateia (self-control). Our primary questions will be:
1. Does anachoresis mean simply a flight in order to escape, or can it sometimes signify a flight followed by a return? What if, in fact, there is no return?
2. Does enkrateia mean the repression or the redirection of our instinctive urges? Does it involve "violence to our natural appetites" (Durkheim) or their transfiguration?
Obviously these are not the only questions to be asked about asceticism,
and in seeking to respond to them I make no claim to provide any overarching
cross-cultural framework. My answers will be given, not as a sociologist,
but as a theologian and church historian, specializing in Greek Christianity.
But the questions themselves have a wider scope, for they are applicable
to the Christian West as well as the Christian East, and to non-Christian
as well as Christian traditions.
A Flight Followed by a Return?
In itself anachoresis can be either negative or positive, either world-denying or world-affirming. Often it is the world-denying aspect that seems to be dominant. When Abba Arsenius asks, "Lord, guide me so that I may be saved," he is told: "Flee from humans, and you will be saved." Arsenius's motive here seems to be exclusively his own salvation, and this involves an avoidance of all contact with his fellow humans; he does not appear to be interested in trying to help them. When a high-ranking Roman lady comes to visit him and asks him to remember her in his prayers, Arsenius answers brusquely: "I pray to God that he will wipe out the memory of you from my heart." Not surprisingly, she departs much distressed. When asked by Abba Mark, "Why do you flee from us?," Arsenius gives an answer that is only slightly more conciliatory: "God knows that I love you, but I cannot be both with God and with humans." There still seems to be no suggestion that he has any responsibility to assist others and to lead them to salvation. Abba Macarius of Egypt is equally inexorable. "Flee from humans, he says; and, when asked what that means, he replies: "It is to sit in your cell and weep for your sins." A monk, so it appears, has no duty toward his neighbor; he must simply think about himself and repent his own offenses. Texts such as these, taken in isolation certainly suggest that monastic anachoresis is something introspective and selfish. When Paul the First Hermit withdraws into total and lifelong seclusion, what possible benefit did this confer on society around him?
Yet this is not the whole story. In other cases the ascetic undertakes, not simply a flight in order to escape, but a flight followed by a return. This pattern can be seen in particular in the immensely influential Life of St. Antony of Egypt (231356), attributed (perhaps correctly) to St. Athanasius of Alexandria. At the outset, Antony withdraws gradually into an ever increasing solitude, which reaches its extreme point when he encloses himself for two decades in a ruined fort, refusing to speak or meet with anyone. But when he is fifty-five there comes a crucial turning point. His friends break down the door and he comes out from the fortress. During the remaining half-century of his long life, Antony still continues to live in the desert, apart from two brief visits to Alexandria. Yet, even though he does not go back to the world in an outward and topographical sense, on the spiritual level he does indeed "return." He makes himself freely available to others, he accepts disciples under his care, and he offers guidance to a constant stream of visitors, serving "as a physician given by God to Egypt," in the words of his biographer. Palladius recounting the story of Eulogius and the cripple, provides a vivid picture of how in practice Antony exercised this ministry of spiritual direction. His description is strikingly similar to the account-written fifteen centuries later-of the Russian staretz Zosima surrounded by the pilgrims, in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov.
Here, then, in St. Antony's case, there is a flight into the desert which turns out to be not world-denying but world-affirming. Although he begins by avoiding all contact with fellow humans, he ends by accepting great numbers of them under contact with his fellow humans his pastoral care. If the portrait of him given in the Apophthegmata (sayings/stories) is to be trusted, Antony felt an intense compassion for others, a direct sense of responsibility. "From our neighbor is life and death, he said; "if we gain our brother, we gain God, but if we cause our brother to stumble, we sin against Christ." Such is the pattern of Antony's life: silence gives place to speech, seclusion leads him to involvement.
This same pattern - of a flight followed by a return - recurs repeatedly in the course of monastic history. It marks the life of St. Basil of Caesarea in fourth-century Cappadocia, of St. Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy, of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) in Palaeologan Byzantium, and of St. Sergius of Radonezh (c.1314-1392) and St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) in Russia. In all of these instances, the ascetic starts by withdrawing into seclusion and ends by becoming the guide and leader of others, a spiritual father or soul friend. What is more, these two stages - solitude, followed by leadership - are not merely juxtaposed in time but are integrally connected with each other. It is precisely because they first withdrew into solitude that these ascetics were afterwards able to act as spiritual guides. Without the ascetic preparation that they underwent in the silence of the wilderness, St. Antony, St. Benedict, or St. Seraphim would never have been able to bring light and healing to others in the way that they did. Not that they withdrew in order to become guides and spiritual masters to their generation; for they fled, not in order to prepare themselves for any other task, but simply in order to be alone with God. When St. Benedict hid himself in a cave near Subiaco, he wanted simply to save his own soul, and had not the slightest intention of saving Western civilization. But his solitary quest for personal salvation did in fact exercise in the long term a profoundly creative effect on European culture. Often it is precisely the men and women of inner stillness - not the activists but the contemplatives, fired by a consuming passion for solitude - who in practice bring about the most far-reaching alterations in the society around them.
In the case of saints such as Antony, Benedict, or Seraphim, the flight was followed by a return. Yet what is to be said of the many ascetics who, after the model of the legendary Paul the First Hermit, never actually "returned" but remained to the end in solitary isolation? Were their lives entirely wasted? Was their anachoresis simply negative? Not necessarily so; it all depends on our criteria. In speaking earlier about Arsenius I was careful to use the words "seems" and "appears." When Arsenius flees from his fellow humans, it may indeed seem to the modern reader that he is doing nothing to help them. But, in the eyes of many of his contemporaries, he was in fact doing something extremely positive in the solitude of the desert: he was praying. Significantly, Arsenius, the Desert Father who represents anachoresis in its most uncompromising form, is depicted in the Apophthegmata as, above all, a person of unceasing, fiery prayer:
"A certain brother went to the cell of Abba Arsenius in Scetis and looked through the window, and he beheld the old man as if completely on fire; for the brother was worthy to see this.... They also said about him, that late on Saturday evening he turned his back on the setting sun, and stretched out his arms towards heaven in prayer; and so he remained until the rising sun shone on his face. And then he sat down."
Such, then, is the service which the solitary ascetic renders to society around him. He helps others not through active works of charity, not through writings and scholarly research, nor yet primarily through giving spiritual counsel, but simply through his continual prayer. His anachoresis is in itself a way of serving others, because the motive behind his withdrawal is to seek union with God; and this prayerful union supports and strengthens his fellow humans, even though he knows nothing about them; and they, on their part, are unaware of his very existence.
The point is effectively summed up by Palladius in the phrase "guarding the walls.'" In his chapter on Abba Macarius of Alexandria, whom he met around 391 CE during his early years in Cellia, he recounts: "Once, when I was suffering from listlessness (akedia), I went to him and said: 'Abba, what shall I do? For my thoughts afflict me, saying: You are making no progress; go away from here.' And he replied to me, 'Tell them: For Christ's sake I am guarding the walls.' " The monks keep watch like sentries on the walls of the spiritual city, thus enabling the other members of the church inside the walls to carry on their daily activities in safety. Guarding the walls against whom? The early Christian ascetics would have had a clear and specific answer: against the demons. Guarding the walls by what means? With the specific weapon of prayer. In the words of the Historia Monachorum: "There is not a village or city in Egypt and the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people are supported by their prayers as though by God himself."
The positive value of flight into the desert is evident when we take into account the meaning that the desert possessed for these early Christian ascetics. It had a twofold significance. It was both the place where God is to be found - here the classic prototype was Moses, who met God face to face in the desert of Sinai - and at the same time it was the place where the demons dwell. The second meaning is vividly emphasized in the Life of Antony: as Antony withdraws into the deep desert, he hears the demons shouting, "Depart from our territory. What business have you here in the desert?" So the solitary, in withdrawing into the desert, has a double aim: to meet God and to fight the demons. In both cases he is not being selfish, and his purpose is not to escape but to encounter. He goes out to discover God and to achieve union with him through prayer; and this is something that helps others. Equally he goes out to confront the demons, not running away from danger but advancing to meet it; and this also is a way of helping others. For the devil with whom he enters into combat is the common enemy of all humankind. Thus there is nothing self-centered in his act of anachoresis. Every prayer that he offers protects his fellow Christians, and every victory that he wins over the devil is a victory won on behalf of the human family as a whole. Such, therefore, is the positive value of anachoresis, even when it is not followed in any visible or explicit fashion by a movement of "return." Of course, many twentieth-century students of early Christian literature do not believe in the existence of demons or in the efficacy of prayer; but such persons need to recognize that the authors of the literature that they are studying believed keenly and intensely in both of these things.
According to the early Christian world view, then, the solitaries were assisting others simply by offering prayer-not just through prayer of intercession, but through any kind of prayer:
where lawlessness prevails, is sustained by their prayers,
and the world, buried in sin, is preserved by their prayers.
In the words of an Orthodox writer in Finland, Tito Colliander:
Prayer is action; to pray is to be highly effective. . . . Prayer is the science of scientists and the art of artists. The artist works in clay or colours, in word or tones; according to his ability he gives them pregnancy and beauty. The working material of the praying person is living humanity. By his prayer he shapes it, gives it pregnancy and beauty: first himself and thereby many others.
The ascetic in the desert, that is to say, helps his fellow humans not so much by anything that he does, but rather by what he is. "First himself and thereby many others": he serves society by transforming himself through prayer, and by virtue of his own self-transfiguration he also transfigures the world around him. By weeping for his own sins, the recluse is in fact altering the spiritual situation of many others.
The rationale of ascetic anachoresis is concisely summed up by St. Seraphim of Sarov: "Acquire the spirit of peace, and then thousands around you will be saved." Perhaps the more a monk thinks about converting himself, and the less he thinks about converting others, the more likely it is that others will, in fact, be converted. St. Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) goes so far as to maintain that it is better to become a solitary than to win over "a multitude of heathen" to the Christian faith: "Love the idleness of stillness above providing for the world's starving and the conversion of a multitude of heathen to the worship of God.... Better is he who builds his own soul than he who builds the world." That is to put the point in a deliberately provocative way; but in fact he who "builds his own soul" is at the same time building the world, and until we have ourselves been in some measure "converted" it is improbable that we shall ever convert anyone else to anything at all. Actually, solitaries did on occasion prove quite effective as missionaries, as is shown, for example by the story of St. Euthymius (377-473) and the Bedouin tribe, but this is exceptional.
In this way the solitaries, through their ascetic anachoresis, are indeed
cooperating in the salvation of the world; but they do this not actively
or intentionally but existentially-not through outward works but through
inner perfection. In the words of Father lrenee Hausherr: "All progress
in sanctity realized by one member benefits everyone; every ascent to God
establishes a new bond between him and humanity as such; every oasis of
spirituality renders the desert of this world less savage and less uninhabitable."
Repression or Transfiguration?
Anachoresis, then, can be world-affirming as well as world-denying. The flight of the solitary from the world may be followed by a "return," in which he or she acts as a spiritual guide, as a "soul friend"; and, even when there is no such return', the hermits are helping others by the very fact of their existence, through their hidden holiness and prayer. What then of enkrateia? Often in Eastern Christian sources this seems to imply an attitude toward material things, toward the human body, and toward members of the other sex, that is little short of dualist. But is this invariably the case? Cannot ascetic enkrateia be likewise affirmative rather than negative?
First of all, early Christian ascetic texts insist repeatedly on the need for moderation in all forms of abstinence and self-restraint. Doubtless this was necessary precisely because so many ascetics were immoderate; yet it is nonetheless significant how often the best and most respected authorities issue firm warnings against excess. What distinguishes true from demonic fasting, states Amma Syncletica, is specifically its moderate character: "There is also an excessive asceticism (askesis) that comes from the enemy, and this is practiced by his disciples. How then are we to distinguish the divine and royal asceticism from that which is tyrannical and demonic? Clearly, by its moderation." As regards food, the Apophthegmata and other early sources regularly discourage prolonged fasting, and state that the best course is to eat something every day. If we want to fast in the right way, affirms John of Lycopolis, the golden rule is never to eat to satiety, never to stuff one's belly. According to St. Barsanuphius of Gaza, we should always rise from the meal feeling that we should have liked to eat a little more. The same principle applies to the drinking of water: we should restrict our intake, stopping well short of the point where we feel that we cannot possibly drink any more. Sober advice of this kind serves to counterbalance the stories of spectacular and inhuman fasting.
Moderation, however, is a vague term. To render our evaluation of enkrateia more exact, let us take up a distinction that is made by Dom Cuthbert Butler between natural and unnatural asceticism:
The mortifications recorded of the Egyptian solitaries, extraordinary and appalling as they were, were all of a kind that may be called natural, consisting in privation of food, of drink, of sleep, of clothing; in exposure to heat and cold; in rigorous enclosure in cell or cave or tomb; in prolonged silence and vigils and prayer; in arduous labour, in wandering through the desert, in bodily fatigue; but of the self-inflicted scourgings, the spikes and chains, and other artificial penances of a later time, I do not recollect any instances among the Egyptian monks of the fourth century.
What basically distinguishes natural from unnatural asceticism is its attitude toward the body. Natural asceticism reduces material life to the utmost simplicity, restricting our physical needs to a minimum, but not maiming the body or otherwise deliberately causing it to suffer. Unnatural asceticism, on the other hand, seeks out special forms of mortification that torment the body and gratuitously inflict pain upon it. Thus it is a form of natural asceticism to wear cheap and plain clothing, whereas it is unnatural to wear fetters with iron spikes piercing the flesh. It is a form of natural asceticism to sleep on the ground, whereas it is unnatural to sleep on a bed of nails. It is a form of natural asceticism to live in a hut or a cave, instead of a well-appointed house, whereas it is unnatural to chain oneself to a rock or to stand permanently on top of a pillar. To refrain from marriage and sexual activity is natural asceticism; to castrate oneself is unnatural. To choose to eat only vegetables, not meat, and to drink only water, not wine, is natural asceticism; but it is unnatural intentionally to make our food and drink repulsive, as was done by Isaac the Priest, who after the Eucharist emptied the ashes from the censer over his food, and by Joseph of Panepho, who added sea water to the river water that he drank. Incidentally, such actions surely display a curious disrespect to God as creator; for we are not to disfigure the gifts that God confers on us.
Unnatural asceticism, in other words, evinces either explicitly or implicitly a distinct hatred for God's creation, and particularly for the body; natural asceticism may do this, but on the whole it does not. The official attitude of the church, especially from the fourth century onwards, has been entirely clear. Voluntary abstinence for ascetic reasons is entirely legitimate; but to abstain out of a loathing for the material creation is heretical. The point is firmly made in the Apostolic Canons (Syria, c.400 CE):
If any bishop, presbyter or deacon, or any other member of the clergy, abstains from marriage, or from meat and wine, not by way of asceticism (askesis) but out of abhorrence for these things, forgetting that God made "all things altogether good and beautiful" (Gen. 1:31), and that he "created humankind male and female" (Gen. 1:27), and so blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed and cast out of the Church. The same applies also to a lay person.
The Council of Gangra (Asia Minor, c.355 CE) likewise anathematizes those who censure marriage and meat eating as essentially sinful. The motive for asceticism must be positive, not negative: "If anyone practices virginity or self-control (enkrateia), withdrawing from marriage as if it were a loathsome thing and not because of the inherent beauty and sanctity of virginity, let such a one be anathema. When we fast, so Diadochus of Photice (mid-fifth century) insists, "we must never feel loathing for any kind of food, for to do so is abominable and utterly demonic. It is emphatically not because any kind of food is bad in itself that we refrain from it." We fast, not out of hatred for God's creation, but so as to control the body; also fasting enables us to help the poor, for the food that we ourselves refrain from eating can be given to others who are in need.
Natural asceticism, it can be argued, is warfare not against the body but for the body. When asked by some children, "What is asceticism?," the Russian priest Alexander Elchaninov (1881-1934) replied, "A system of exercises which submits the body to the spirit"; and when they inquired what was the first exercise of all, he told them, Breathe through the nose. Our ascetic aim is not to impede our breathing through some forced technique, but simply to breathe correctly and so to let the body function in a natural way. "The important element in fasting," Father Alexander added, "is not the fact of abstaining from this or that, or of depriving oneself of something by way of punishment"; rather its purpose is the "refinement" of our physicality, so that we are more accessible to "the influence of higher forces" and thus approach closer to God. Refinement, not destruction: that is the aim.
In contrast, then, to the unnatural variety, natural asceticism has a positive objective: it seeks not to undermine but to transform the body, rendering it a willing instrument of the spirit, a partner instead of an opponent. For this reason another Russian priest, Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944), used to say (employing the word "flesh" in its Pauline sense, to signify not our physicality but our fallen and sinful self): "Kill the flesh, so as to acquire a body." As for the body, so far from killing it we are to hold it in honor and to offer it to God as a "living sacrifice" (Rom. 12.1). The Desert Father, Dorotheus, was surely wrong to say of his body, "It kills me, I kill it;" and he was tacitly corrected by another Desert Father, Poemen, who affirmed: "We were taught, not to kill the body, but to kill the passions." There is an eloquent assertion of the intrinsic goodness of the body in the hymn already quoted, On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:
Their bodies are temples of the Spirit, their-minds are churches; their prayer is pure incense, and their tears are fragrant smoke...
They greatly afflict
their bodies, not because they do not love their bodies, rather, they want
to bring their bodies to Eden in glory.
It is reassuring in this connection to find that the earliest and most influential of all Greek monastic texts, the Life of Antony, adopts a markedly positive attitude towards the body. When Antony emerged after twenty years of enclosure within a fort, his friends "were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise,, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but he was just as they had known him before his withdrawal.... He was altogether balanced, as one guided by reason and abiding in a natural state." There is no dualistic hatred of the body here; asceticism has not subverted Antony's physicality but restored it to its "natural state," that is to say, to its true and proper condition as intended by God. This natural state of the body continues up to the end of Antony's long life. Although he lived to be more than a hundred, his eyes were undimmed and quite sound, and he saw clearly; he lost none of his teeth-they had simply become worn down to the gums because of the old man's great age. He remained strong in both feet and hands." So according to the texts, enkrateia enhanced rather than impaired Antony's bodily health.
"We were taught, not to kill the body, but to kill the passions," says Abba Poemen. But is he right? Cannot even the passions be redirected and used in God's service? Our answer will depend in part on the meaning that we attach to the word pathos (passion). Are we to regard it in a Stoic sense, as something fundamentally diseased and disordered, a morbid and pathological condition, or should we rather follow the Aristotelian standpoint and treat it as something neutral, capable of being put either to evil or to good use? The manner in which we understand pathos will also influence the sense that we give to the term apatheia (dispassion, passionlessness). But this is not simply a linguistic issue; for the way in which we employ words influences the way in which we think about things. It makes a considerable difference what we say to others and, indeed, to ourselves: do we enjoin mortify" or "redirect," "eradicate" or "educate," "eliminate" or "transfigure"?
Philo adopts the Stoic view of pathos, and many Greek Christian fathers follow him in this, regarding the passions as "contrary to nature" and even directly sinful. This is the position of Clement of Alexandria, Nemesius of Emesa, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Pontus, and John Climacus, to mention only a few. But there are significant exceptions, and both Theodoret of Cyrus and Abba Isaias of Scetis adopt a more positive attitude. Desire and anger, says Theodoret, are "necessary and useful to nature": without desire we would experience no longing for divine things, no appetite for food and drink, no impulse towards "lawful procreation, and so the human race would perish. Anger in its turn has a positive function, he says, for it prevents our desire from passing beyond due limits. Isaias likewise argues that the different passions can all be put to a positive use that is "in accordance with nature." Desire, employed aright, impels us to love God; jealousy (or zelos [zeal]) spurs us on to make greater efforts in the spiritual life (cf. 1 Cor. 12.31); anger and hatred prove beneficial, if directed against sin and the demons; even pride can be used in a constructive way, when we employ it to counteract self-depreciation is not to suspend despondency. The aim of the ascetic, then, press these passions but to reorient them. St. Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) follows the same approach when he describes love for God as a "holy passion." In similar terms St. Gregory Palamas speaks of "divine and blessed passions"; our objective is not the nekrosis (mortification) of the passions but their metathesis (transposition).
Even in those authors, such as Evagrius, who speak of pathos (passion) in pre-orative terms, the notion of apatheia (dispassion) is by no means unduly negative. Evagrius himself links it closely with agape love. It is not an attitude of passive indifference and insensibility, still less a condition in which sinning is impossible, but it is on the contrary a state of inner freedom and integration, in which we are no longer under the domination of sinful impulses, and so are capable of genuine love; apathy" is thus a particularly misleading translation. Adapting Evagrius's teaching to a Western audience, St. John Cassian wisely rendered apatheia as puritas cordis (purity of heart) a phrase that has the double advantage of being both scriptural in content and positive in form. To denote its dynamic character, Diadochus employs the expressive phrase "the fire of apatheia." It is no mere mortification of the passions, but a state of soul in which a burning love for God and for our fellow humans leaves no room for sensual and selfish impulses.
From all this it is evident that enkrateia, although often understood
in a negative manner-as hatred of the body,, as the destruction of our
instinctive urges-can also be interpreted in more affirmative terms, as
the reintegration of the body and the transformation of the passions into
their true and natural condition. Again and again, when the patristic
texts are carefully analyzed, the Greek fathers turn out to be advocating
not repression but transfiguration.
A Vocation for All
Our explanation of the terms anachoresis and enkrateia has made clear that askesis signifies not simply a selfish quest for individual salvation but a service rendered to the total human family; not simply the cutting off or destroying of the lower but., much more profoundly, the refinement and illumination of the lower and its transfiguration into something higher. The same conclusion could be drawn from an examination of other key ascetic terms, such as hesychia (stillness, tranquility, quietude). This too is affirmative rather than negative, a state of plenitude rather than emptiness, a sense of presence rather than absence. It is not just a cessation of speech, a pause between words, but an attitude of attentive listening, of openness and communion with the eternal: in the words of John Climacus, "Hesychia is to worship God unceasingly and to wait on him.... The Hesychast is one who says, 'I sleep, but my heart is awake"' (Song 5.2).
Interpreted in this positive way, as transfiguration rather than mortification, askesis is universal in its scope-not an elite enterprise but a vocation for all. It is not a curious aberration, distorting our personhood, but it reveals to us our own true nature. As Father Alexander Elchaninov observes, "Asceticism is necessary first of all for creative action of any kind, for prayer, for love: in other words, it is needed by each of us throughout our entire life.... Every Christian is an ascetic." Without asceticism none of us is authentically human.