Ascetic Practices in the New Testament
At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was “lead by the Spirit”and withdrew into the desert where he fasted. He could have chosen another path, but He was showing us the path we must take to prepare our human bodies for its eventual resurrection. While in the desert He was engaged in “spiritual warfare.” He “fasted forty days and forty nights.” He faced “wild beasts.”
What is meant by the desert? It is a place where one can meditate alone, pray, fast and reflect on ones most inner essence intensifying their spiritual reality. The desert is a place that separates us from the normal activities of a secular life. It is a place where we can be alone with God. What is most important, our Lord showed us this path and calls us to follow His example. We are all called to go to the “desert”periodically.
In the Gospel of Matthew the Lord says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and may glorify your Father who is in heaven.”(Matt 5:48) The “good works” he is referring to are the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger, blessed are the pure of heart. He was not talking here about social action, but about our spiritual development. These ideals found in the Beatitudes underly ascetic practices for all Orthodox Christians.
The Lord very directly asks us to perfect ourselves. He says, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He clearly tells us that we must work on our own self to perfect our way of being. He is not just telling us to be better than average, but to be “perfect” like God. Matthew shows us that the Lord initiated ascetic practices in addition to the withdrawal into the “desert.” Jesus could have abolished ascetic practices, but He purified them and gave them the proper status within our spiritual life. We are to do them, but to do them without showing off, without hypocrisy or glory. He says, “Take heed that you do not your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward with your Father in heaven.”(Matt 6:1)He shows us how to pray and He instructs His disciples to fast when He is taken away. At one point he told His disciples that they were unable to cast out the devil, because this kind can only be driven out through prayer and fasting.(Matt 17:21 & Mark 9:29)
Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Galatians are often used by those who oppose ascetic practices in the name of modernism. They use portions of these epistles to justify that salvation is a free gift of God and that any type of works, especially ascetic activities such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving and worship contradict the free nature of grace and free gift of salvation. This way of thinking denies Tradition, the Gospel teachings and the experience of many saints. It is an “either/or” way of thinking, believing that if one was saved by faith alone then one is not saved by works. To properly understand these two epistles, one has to distinguish between the works in the law as understood in Judaism, and the works in the law as refined by Christ. Our salvation is not based on either the extreme of faith alone or by our works alone. Both of these extremes are false yet both faith and works are necessary. God created man with a free will in His image. As a result of this, God provided us with a synergistic path to salvation requiring us to use our free choice. God is the cause and the initiator and one who completes our salvation, but we are required to spiritually respond to the free gift of grace. Ascetic activities are properly placed in this response. We need inner discipline, or purity of heart, to make the right choices. This has nothing to do with the “works of the law” in the Judaic sense.
Paul says when talking about his and other Apostles’ calling, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name.”(Rom 1:4-5) The idea of “obedience of faith” is one that implies one’s full spiritual activity in the response to the grace of God. It involves an ongoing spiritual effort. It involves choice and action. Paul writes that God “will render to each according to his works.”(Rom 2:6) Our works are important along with our faith.
Paul advises us to control our bodily desires. He tells us, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body in order to obey its lusts. Nor yield your members to sin as weapons of uprighteousness.”(Rom 6:12) He sees that we are engaged in a spiritual struggle. He is saying that we need to be able to control our bodily lusts first so we can make the choices that will allow us to carry out the tenets of the Law.. Also the word weapon implies that we are involved in a type of spiritual warfare.
He also writes, “you who were slaves of sin obeyed out of the heart…”(Rom 6:17) Earlier he mentioned the universal aspect of the “law that is written in the hearts” of mankind.(Rom 2:15) Paul is talking about the deepest aspect of our interior life. He is implying an obedience that comes from the heart and action in line with Apostolic teachings. This is not the same as following some kind of rule book, but a way of being where we are pure in our intentions. This purity is what needs to be developed to perfect our being so we can come closer to God.
He writes for example, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”(Rom !2:1) We are in his words providing a “service” which is an action and offering our bodies as a “living sacrifice.” Paul also commands, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”(Rom 12:2) Paul here is assuming a synergistic action of two wills, one the will of God, which proceeds and completes, and one that is the will of man that responds and cooperates. He is constantly reminding us that our aim is life in the Kingdom of heaven which is not of this world, but one we must prepare ourselves for.
In his letters to the Corinthians He compares the spiritual life with that of running a race and warfare. He writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified..”(I Cor 9:24-27) Here he places an emphasis on self-control. He uses the analogies of preparation for athletic competitions, where one must practice and exercise to run a good race. He is showing us that in the spiritual life it is just as in athletics. We have to exercise, preparing just like a good athlete for the contest, if we desire to attain our spiritual goal to become like God. These exercises are our ascetic practices.
Throughout the New Testament, we see that there is implied a synergistic approach to our salvation and, therefore, the actions that we take to improve or purify our human condition are important for us to be able to follow the teachings of Christ. This is not something that only monastics are expected to do. It is something we all must engage in if we are serious about our salvation. The ascetic disciplines are the way we train ourselves to align our human will with the will of God so we can live in union with Him and through His grace be uplifted to paradise and eternal life.
The Orthodox way of life is clearly not a passive one based on faith alone. Both faith and works in the law as set out by Christ, not to be confused with the Laws of the Jews which Christ gave new meaning, are nnecessary. Orthodoxy is not a faith that distinguishes between two ways of life - monastic or married. Both are accepted as legitimate paths although one may be preferable to the other. The path we take is one to be freely chosen by each of us. We have to deal with the environment that our choice creates for us. We need to purify ourselves through self discipline so we can become more perfect and move toward our goal to become like God.