The Ascetic Christian
The eleventh-century theologian Nicetas Stethatos taught that there are three different types of natures in mankind. The first lives for himself, even if it harms others. The second desires good for others and for himself. The third lives to please God, even at the expense of harming himself. The first man he considered to be base. The second he called the natural man. The third, a spiritual man.
Unfortunately, the spiritual person as so defined is not the role model we see in most of Christendom. We are lead to believe that asceticism—real self-denial—is for the radical few (Mother Teresa being the most obvious example of this) and is by no means required. We live in a culture that allows even people of humble means to be self-indulgent. Aside from the toys of the well-off (such as a Mercedes Benz and Rolex watches), just consider the popularity of Häagen Dazs ice cream, gourmet coffees, and expensive gym shoes. Ours is a culture where even the poor can sometimes live a “me first” life.
The human desire to be always happy, to be comfortable, and to be perpetually entertained runs counter to the very idea of denying yourself and taking up the cross. This, of course, is the basis of an ascetical life—to deny yourself luxuries and to embrace spiritual disciplines in order to take away everything that might distract you from being Christ-like.
Asceticism was a lifestyle for many of the saints. For most of us, it is something we get a taste of (so to speak) if we participate in times of fasting, such as Lent. Of course, we are not all called to lives of complete self-denial—to live as hermits in the wilderness. But to say that we do not need to live a life of self-denial is equivalent to saying we do not need to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our might. Christ himself called us to nothing less when he spoke of taking up our crosses daily.
Are we willing to live without luxury cars in order to humbly identify with the simple life of our Lord? Or better yet, are we willing to deny ourselves simple pleasures like a cup of coffee in the morning, so that, by its absence, we can be reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us? Asceticism is a means of becoming Christ-like. It is also a reminder to pray. Apart from these goals it is a striving after the wind. When our body craves certain foods that we have given up or when our nature desires things from which we have abstained, we take these cravings and desires and present them as offerings to Christ. If we fail to focus our ascetical practices on a deeper life with Christ, then our labors are in vain. Fasts such as eating fish on Fridays may be good nutritional practices, but unless they remind us of Christ’s suffering on Good Friday, they are nothing more than that.
Jesus called us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily. Not just when we feel like it, or just on Fridays or during Lent, but daily. Only by so doing will we become, in the words of Nicetas Stethatos, spiritual people.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“The Ascetic Christian” first appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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