‘Christianity is an ascetic religion.” When I first heard this statement I was shocked, and a bit upset. I certainly disagreed with it and hoped it was not true.
I did not know much about asceticism, but what I did know did not sound especially enticing. Over years of study and living as an Orthodox Christian, I have become convinced that it is true. I have also become convinced that asceticism is a path to life — not something to be feared.
What do you mean that Christianity is an ascetic religion?
I will explain by examining how Christ’s disciples became ascetics, using the the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14.
To set the scene: St. John the Baptist has just been beheaded and his disciples have come to Jesus, telling him of the event.
In response, Jesus left the city and departed into the uninhabited desert with 5,000 people following him, including the former disciples of St. John.
Jesus and the crowd have walked many miles through a long day in the desert and now it is evening; it is time for dinner and there is no food.
How is that these 5,000 are so ill-prepared? How did they come to be in the desert without food? Were they seeking to be ascetics? Did they plan to fast as a spiritual discipline? No, clearly not.
They were in the desert due to a deeper hunger: a need to be with Christ.
Why do they follow Christ? They are like orphans, longing for their parents; Christ is all that matters for them.
They follow Him with faith, with yearning, not knowing where this will lead nor how they will live, placing all of their hope in Christ.
Thus, they find themselves ascetics, exhausted in the desert, without food, without bed, without shelter, yet with the one thing they desire: they have Christ. They have cut off all things, even things they need, for the one thing they truly need.
It is a combination of love, hope, faith and deep need that have driven them to this extreme. They do not seek asceticism; they seek Christ. Asceticism is not the goal, nevertheless they have become ascetics.
Why should I care? How does asceticism make any sense in today’s world? How does asceticism lead to Christ?
Once there was a woman who, hearing of the lives of early Christian ascetics, the Desert Fathers, said, “What about me? How do their lives have any relevance to me? I can’t fast for long periods, or stand for hours in unceasing prayer?”
“Perhaps so,” answered a priest, “but you could start by coming to church on time.”
Humorous as this may be, it illustrates both the problem and the path to the solution for us.
Each of us has things which keep us from Christ. We prefer our momentary entertainment and comfort to Christ.
Many of us do not even feel the hunger for Christ any longer, numbed as we are with the distractions and worries of modern life.
We are not ascetics. We consider it a struggle, even a burden, to “have” to pray each day, to thank God before a meal, or even to go to Church on a Sunday, let alone give a little money to the poor.
Often Christians ponder “Why don’t I make progress?” We wonder, perhaps, “Why are our lives empty? Why our hearts are cold?”
We make no progress because we make no beginning to do even the small things that are within our power. We have the opportunity to follow Christ every day. Do we choose to do so?
How did the Apostles end up as they did, filled with Holy Spirit, healed of their bickering and selfish thoughts — saints whose simple word, or even their shadow, could heal a person? By following Christ daily. By taking up their cross daily.
Why did they take up their cross daily? Was it because they liked to do hard things, to suffer a little?
Rather, it was their love of Christ which lead them to follow His wandering life —the hardship of the desert, the hardship of the enmity of their rulers, the late nights and early mornings of prayer.
That is to say, it was Christ who led them to be ascetics.
t was their asceticism, in turn, that drew them closer to Christ. It was their asceticism that lead them from their earthly thoughts to their true healing by Christ through the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Thus, we have a circle: love of Christ leads to asceticism and asceticism leads to love of Christ.
So, in the end, what is asceticism? It means simply to follow Christ, rather than our belly, rather than our need to entertain our senses.
It means feeling the hunger — the deep, innate hunger that is in each of us — that longs for healing and for communion with our Creator, and letting that need drive us more than anything else in this short life.
The Rev. Jesse Philo is a priest at Silouan Orthodox Church in Walla Walla and St. John Orthodox Church in Kennewick. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.