Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Essential Nature of Asceticism

"Only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can the state of perfection and mystical union with God be reached."  - Dimitru Staniloae
Saint Paul gives us a clear picture of what is required.  He compares it to the training of athletes who are conditioning themselves to win an important competition. He says, 
"Run is such a way that you may obtain it [the prize]....I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor 24-27)"  If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.... Be diligent to present yourself approved to God.... (2 Tim 2:5, 2:15)
This spiritual work and training is called asceticism. There should not be any negative connotation given to this terms. It has only a positive purpose.  

Fr. Staniloae says,
The ultimate goal of asceticism is to free our nature not only from the movements of sinful appetites, but also from the ideas that appear in the mind after the cleansing from passions.  This is only to gain its independence from created things, which have enslaved our nature by the passions, and make it long more for God.
Our ascetic efforts can also be seen as a gradual death with Christ.  We can't be resurrected with Him if we don't first die with Him.

The ascetic activities follow a clear path involving a series of steps.

Fr. Staniloae says,
It is a precise discipline which takes into consideration the laws of the normal development of the spiritual life, as well as the principles of faith. Such a battle according to the law means that its road is established according to a well grounded logic...
We must seek out the nature of these spiritual laws and the steps necessary to develop our spiritual life.

Asceticism, while essential to our spiritual growth, is not a technique which of itself can produce the sought mystical union with God.  It is more akin to athletic training which prepares us to receive Uncreated Light of God.  Ascetic practices  develop us spiritually so we can be given god like powers such as was exhibited by the Apostles. This comes only from the Grace of God once we have properly prepared.

Fr. Staniloae says,
For this self-revelation of God in a mystical union we have to make ourselves worthy by being sincere, clean, and good...
We begin with faith, but then we must  work to purify our nature to become worthy to receive God's transforming Grace. This work is called asceticism. We were blessed with free will and it needs to be trained to control the natural passions of the body, and unite itself voluntarily with the will of God. We are engaged in the supreme contest that Paul called "spiritual warfare." Our aim is life in Christ, union with Him, to become in His likeness, so, as it is stated in the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

What are these clear steps that make up the asceticism of Orthodox Spirituality?

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 23 - 29.


  1. I have often been confused by the terms Asceticism and Hesychasm. Are these the same thing? Does the Church define a difference?



  2. Hesychasm is one kind of asceticism. Asceticism involves any kind of purposeful practice for our spiritual growth. Where hesychasm is based on prayer rooted in stillness.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. It is very helpful.


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