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Ascetism and the Contemporary World

by Sergei Baikalov-Latyshev

What is asceticism? Asceticism is a strict, purposeful life, expressed in spiritual labors, that is, in prayer, contemplation, the directing of the mind toward God, frequently in conjunction with corresponding physical undertakings, and simultaneously with abstention from any negative activity and unnecessary natural satisfactions.

This does not mean that asceticism must be the lot only of certain desert-dwellers or monks ("ascetics"). The Christian faith itself is built on self-denial, which to a certain degree is asceticism.

God Himself placed a prohibition on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in paradise and by this showed the necessity of asceticism, an exercise of will and mind. And moderation in desires and urges, control of desires and urges, is necessary for each ordinary Orthodox Christian.

Having all this in mind, we can understand why the materialists, who do not recognize a spiritual principle in man, have always fought against asceticism. Materialism says: "Your nature alone can prescribe laws for you: do everything it demands and to which it draws you."

But at the present time there is a striking phenomenon taking place. On the one hand, by its way of life, our society (including, alas, many Orthodox people) completely rejects any form of asceticism: the non-observance of fasts, [1] the absence of zeal in prayer, private and public, and so forth. This on the one hand.

But on the other, we observe in our era, among the youth of Western Europe in particular, a kind of morbid enthusiasm for "Eastern religions", despite the fact that the entry of this youth into the cells, hidden here in Europe, of all these at times fanatical religions requires such an ascetic regimen of its adepts, that one can do little else than express amazement at its strictness.

We will cite two examples.

This is a typical working day of the young French followers of the "Hare Krishna" sect, which has a large private residence in the center of Paris, not far from the Champs Elysees. Reveille at 3:30; shower; prayer in the temple; reading of their scriptures; prayer beads and so forth. This goes on for two hours. Then follow special lessons, singing, and sacred dances. Again there is a service. At 8:30 in the morning, breakfast and the beginning of the working day. Travel through the city for missionary (propaganda) purposes and for the sale of the publications of the sect. Others work on a farm from which the sect receives provisions. Dinner at 12:30, consisting of milk, cheese and rice. Again, work and study. The day ends at 7:00 in the evening with a final service. No unseemly behavior is permitted.

There exists in Western Europe another sect, more well-known, the (so-called) "Disciples of Moon," which is of such a dangerous character that many families which have lost adolescent children to the sect have formed a defense committee against this movement which carries on intensive recruiting among youth. [2]

As our reader will see, the followers of the Moon sect also lead an extraordinarily strict and ascetic way of life. Reveille at 6:30; a half hour of prayer; breakfast; more prayer; studies. At 11 o'clock, departure for work or preaching. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, lunch. From 4:30 to 8 o'clock, there are again assigned tasks, mainly in the recruiting of new members. If you add it up, you will see that all together there are only a few hours of sleep a day; the rest of the time there is prayer, instruction, collection of contributions, and work. Here also, morals are characterized by an amazing strictness. Yet despite all this, there are young people who give up parents, family, studies and work, and become staunch followers of Moon.

At this point in our task it is not necessary to linger on these eastern sects, certainly of an openly anti-Christian orientation, which are now finding followers in Europe in almost all of the large cities. We will also not speak of those young people that leave Europe and settle in India and other neighboring countries, nor of those now in Europe that are enthusiastic not only about the methods of Yoga and Zen, but their philosophy as well. We mention all of this only to show that even the strictest asceticism does not represent a hindrance in the successful recruiting of new followers, but perhaps is even one of the attractive aspects of such movements.

The one thing that we may find of positive value in such a phenomenon is that it is a sign that at the present time, there is a certain alienation from materialism, a sign of the quest for something spiritual. This is the path of idealism, though it be false and of dubious value. But this tells us that in its quest, youth snatches at anything field out to it.

One of the former followers of the Krishna sect expresses herself in this way: "Give the youth an ideal, hope, something definite. To limit yourself only to criticism of one or another sect is not sufficient. You have to give something in exchange."

Inevitably the thought arises in a person who reads such lines: "But why doesn't this mass of people find what it is looking for in Christianity?" The answers may vary, but they are available. Now let us just recall the words of the Apostle, arising as never before in our consciousness, in view of everything that is going on:

"For the time will come," foretells the Apostle, "when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth and shall be turned unto fables" (II Tim. 4:3-4).

We must, however, observe that the enthusiasm for eastern sects is already diminishing at the present time. Without a doubt the reason for this is, first of all, the young people themselves, who have discovered the falseness, emptiness and futility behind the tempting facade.

Nevertheless, we can see an attempt to indoctrinate the consciousness with the possibility of uniting Christianity, with all the oriental pagan religions, if only by finding, here and there, identical ascetic methods. Thus, the thought is often expressed, for example, that so-called "Christian Yoga" is similar to spiritual "contemplation" in Orthodoxy.

And of course, there is a great danger in this. We see this first of all in the fact that searching humanity, having turned away from the Truth, from Christ, from the Holy Church, will look for something (as it will seem to it "identical") equivalent in pagan eastern religions.

And here we must remind you that true Orthodox spirituality differs completely from pagan "spirituality", from oriental "mysticism."

We believe that God is absolute and almighty, is the creator of everything; and that between creature and Creator there is a chasm. But man alone among the creatures strives for God as if he did not differ from Him. Only in God does he receive his blessedness. The fall of man became a wall across his path to God. And man could not overcome his fall through his own power. For this, man needed a savior. The gulf between God and man is overcome by God's love. And that God became man is the mystery of this overcoming. Now man can work on himself, although the path of purification is both long and difficult.

It is reached by various ways and methods: by prayer, fasting, struggle with the passions, partaking of the Holy Mysteries, and various spiritual exercises. This is a whole podvig. And this is all only the means, not the end. The end is purification from sin and a drawing closer to God.

True, we know instances in Sacred Scripture in which this path, at first glance, seems very short and simple. But this is only at first glance. In the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, the return to the Father is only the first step in the sinner's repentance. After this, the task of intensive work on himself will stand before him. Before the eyes of the apostles, Zacchaeus not only offered repentance, but also took upon himself a further podvig: the desire to change his life decisively.

And after this, constant abiding in God requires man's close attention. This is the main thing and not one or another ascetic method which at only the superficial glance can seem to be identical in both a Christian ascetic and a follower of the Hindu sect in Paris.

Generally speaking, Hinduism is the complete opposite of true Christianity. If the point of departure of Christian podvig is humility, that of Hindu ascesis is self-assertion, a feeling of one's own power. If in Christianity the personality, gradually growing and being perfected, may develop to infinity, in Hinduism, on the other hand, the personality is doomed to oblivion. The Holy Gospel shows us that perfection is in the fulness of love. But eastern religions deny the value of love, which, according to their teaching, is annihilated through the path of the self-annihilation of the personality.

The Christian, according as he progresses, grows spiritually: his feelings, desires, and thoughts become better. This is what the path of correct asceticism consists of. In Hinduism, on the contrary, the aim is the extinguishing of all desires, thoughts, and feelings. Everything dissolves in some kind of nirvana.

The purpose of Christian asceticism is purification from evil. We must achieve this in the period of our life on earth. This is the reason that time is highly valued in Christianity. Hinduism completely devalues time by its treacherous teaching of the transmigration of souls.

The art of sham asceticism of the false eastern sects that are now somehow attracting our youth consists in the establishment of oneself in complete repose, freeing oneself from thoughts and desires, becoming passive towards everything, and forgetting everything but one goal—self-deification. They have no other God. They place self in the foreground, for some kind of higher perfection, and choose for this various postures and movements, embark upon the difficult path of asceticism, select sacred dances, pray in time with their hearts... But further than this they do not wish to go. Purification from thoughts, from passions and from sin does not interest them: yoga may be practised immediately by any character that, amoral though he may be, is "deifying himself", fully satisfied with himself (that is, lacking humility). [3]

But along with such an attraction to asceticism, false though it be, there is also to be observed, as we pointed out at the beginning of this article, the opposite tendency: a rejection of all asceticism. Not long ago, a certain Roman Catholic publication with a large circulation, though of a very leftist orientation, spoke ironically of the struggles of St. Simeon the Stylite, whose memory we celebrate on the first of September. He received the monastic tonsure at the age of 18, and was the first of many ascetics to undergo his struggles on a pillar, a column. He was clairvoyant and by his prayers performed miracles; he reposed in Syria in 495 A.D., at 95 years of age. Even now, travellers can see the ruins of the church built in honor of the saint near his pillar.

There is nothing new in such an attitude on the part of a "modern" Roman Catholic journal towards the podvig of stylitism, as well as towards asceticism in general. But it is characteristic of our times.

We can expect that someone will ask us:

"Why these hairshirts, these chains, these cells in which one can neither stand nor straighten oneself out? Why these pillars and standing on them for many years? Why life under the open sky, lying on the bare ground, subsistence on herbs and roots? Why these incessant prostrations and day-and-night chanting and prayer?"

We must answer thus:

Christian ascetics know what nature is, and to what degree its laws are obligatory for man. They acknowledge its creation by God, and its laws are divine laws. Then why do they go against nature? They are going not against nature, but against the derangement in their own natures, and especially against the corrupted will of man, which is incapable of holding him to the gratification of his needs within the bounds prescribed by nature. Before man became a sinner against the laws prescribed by divine revelation, he was a sinner against nature, or against the laws invested in it by the Creator. Everything in nature requires sustenance for the continuation of life, but only man is capable of turning nourishment into pleasure, which leads to a passion, the fattening of himself with food, resulting in loss of health.

Thus in order only to be true to nature, man must be an ascetic. Even the ancient pagan philosophers realized this. Is it possible not to be an ascetic for the Christian who desires to embody in his own distorted nature that high ideal of truly human life depicted for him in the Gospels? The ascetic eats and sleeps little, so that his body may not become fat and heavy, not breed nests of laziness and lustfulness, not become a putrid swamp. He prefers coarse foods to rich and sweet foods, because in using the former it is easier to maintain strict temperance. He is careful with wine, because it produces a disturbance of the blood, which stirs up the passions and excessive mirth, and unleashes the tongue to an immoderate degree.

Similar podvigs are accessible to all, and we perform one when we deny ourselves, even if only during Great Lent or before Holy Communion.

But something much more is necessary.

Intense spiritual diseases, and especially chronic ones, as the Fathers express it, are healed by intensive remedies. Is it strange that zealots of spiritual purity, even after many efforts in the struggle with the passions, were troubled in their consciences by the onslaught of sin arising from the depths of the heart, and through a feeling of pain and suffering would direct their consciousness away from them? This is especially appropriate in the beginning of the fiery struggle of an inflamed soul with a chronic sinful habit. Only that person who has not begun to struggle with sin does not know what this struggle costs.

Furthermore, according to the teaching of the Apostle Paul, ascetics have transferred their struggle with evil from the realm of flesh and blood to the invisible realm of the very instigators of sin the evil spirits. Who can tell what cunning and what attacks of the invisible enemies they were responding to with their podvigs, which we can view only from the outside?

Finally, if the bright horizon of eternal and blessed life is opened them through the action of grace, could they not intensify their struggles in order to come closer in spirit to the desired goal? But the Apostle Paul puts a limit to our curiosity in these instances with a single remark: "He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man" (I Cor. 2:15).

The higher ascetic podvigs are the pursuit of those that have chosen them freely; but asceticism as a moral principle is accessible and necessary for every Orthodox Christian according to the measure of his strength and spiritual growth.

Magnifying our great saints—the holy desert dwellers, monks, and ascetics—and bowing before their struggles, we will as a consequence always remember that our Orthodox Faith is ascetic in itself, and that asceticism is necessary, in one degree or another, for all of us.


1. We mean fasting in the broad sense: the limiting of oneself by the acceptance of some kind of discipline. Orthodox fasting requires not only limitation In choice and quantity of food, but also in' the voluntary avoidance of the marital bed and, in the spiritual aspect, the struggle with all the passions. "Fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually . . ." (From a stikhira of the liturgical beginning of Great Lent, which explains true fasting exactly.)

2. We set aside, of course, the political coloration of the Moon sect. Its pointed anti-communism may even be the reason why it is being opposed more energetically than other, analogous sects, which are nevertheless equally dangerous. "But why is it that they are not taking measures against the propagandists of the Maoist philosophy, who are working with impunity within the walls of the schools were our children are?" asked one of the parents on French radio...

3. For the fullness of mystic illumination, the ascetics of faith, as an indispensable condition, traversed the long path of ascesis and spiritual trial, ascending on it "from strength to strength," that is, gradually attaining a high degree of spiritual experience and knowledge. Let us ask ourselves the question—did St. Sergius of Radonezh, St, Seraphim, St. John of Kronstadt and the others honored by the Orthodox church engage in either astrology or the study of oriental Hindu or Tibetan mysticism? And has our Church been aware of the existence and practice of this mysticism in our days? Of course it has known and knows. But neither the monks of our Orthodox monasteries nor our ascetics ever made use of it, for their path was the path of the strictest New Testament Christianity, in which all such mysticism had become superfluous and unnecessary.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May June 1977), pp.33-39. Translated from: The Messenger of the Western European Diocese of the Russian Church Abroad, no. 7 (Nov., 1976), pp. 8-15. Original source: "A Letter to the Astrologers", Russian Life, San Francisco, November 23, 1974. Translated by Seraphim F. Engelhardt.