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,  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. 
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
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
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
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
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
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 goalself-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). 
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
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 saintsthe holy desert dwellers, monks, and asceticsand
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 questiondid 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.