Renewal and Asceticism
by Fr. James C. Meena
First I think it is necessary for us to understand what renewal really means before we go on to talk about asceticism. You have heard it said that Jesus Christ makes all things news. According to St. Paul "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is passed away, behold, the new has come," (II Cor. Chapter 5 Vs. 18).
Renewal is not simply making something appear as new. We take an old piece of silver, for example, and we polish it up until it shines and we say it is like new. That is not renewal in the Christian sense. Renewal is to take something old and worn and weighted down by sin and corruptibility and by the exerting of the Divine Will to recreate it anew so that that which had made it old no longer exists in its character. The word, "renewal," does not apply to material things. Anything that has existed for any length of time cannot be renewed in the Christian sense but the human being who is committed to Christ Who, by His Divine Will makes all things new, that creature becomes a new recreated person. That newness in Christ means the total expunging of all that was the old so that one may start again as a new person. Our record is washed clean. All of our sins are wiped away from the slate of our life and we are given a new start.
St. Paul said it best; "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the Saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a Holy Temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit, (Ephesians 2:19 & 20). If we are then a part of this household of God and members of his family, certain things are expected of us. We are built into that household as pillars, walls and roof resting on a Holy Foundation, and the Godhead dwells in us and binds us together.
That which we are expected to do as Orthodox Christians is wrapped up essentially in one word, asceticism. Following our honest to God, conscientious commitment to Christ in which we dedicate our whole life to Him, we are called upon to live the life of spiritual exercise.
Asceticism, as we Orthodox Christians understand it, acknowledges that there is a state of constant warfare raging in the life of the individual between good and evil . . . a state of warfare between us and the prince of darkness who strives to embrace us and make us his. It is through the various techniques and practices and disciplines of the ascetic life . . . which I must add here is not restricted to mystics and monastics but applies to all of us . . . that we may avoid the embrace of Satan and march staunchly on the road to Theosis, union with God.
Asceticism begins when we give up our selves for something infinitely better. As we apply our ascetic disciplines we grow from one level to another, from one plateau to another, closer to God, further away from sin, yet we become more keenly aware of and wary of sin. There actually comes a time when we can look back on our lives over a period of five or ten or fifteen years and see the kind of person we were when we started and the person we have become and not be able to identify with the personality we once were. We become so infused with living our lives as Christians from day to day that it seems absolutely impossible that we could have lived in any other style, at any other time. This is the product of Orthodox ascetic living.
What is asceticism? It is prayer, fasting, good works and study, diligently and faithfully applied out of our love for God and our desire to be united with Him. Asceticism has an impact on the body, the soul, the mind and the spirit. We fast for the body's sake, we pray to nourish the soul, we do good works to feed the spirit. We study scripture and the inspired literature of the fathers to enhance our ascetic life by feeding the mind.
When we pray we pray not only for our own sins but we pray for others. When we fast, we fast not only for ourselves but we share that which we have saved from fasting and more if possible, with those who are less fortunate than we by giving alms. And when we do good works we do them not simply for others but to lift our own spirit.
When we dedicate ourselves to this discipline or asceticism we are not alone. The Holy Spirit works with us and the whole Church prays, meditates and gives alms with us, generating within us the energy necessary to achieve that which we desire, union with God. If we fail and if we fall and we get up and start again with faith and determination, then our asceticism has validity and meaning.
Ascetic living is living as though we were God's! Yes, that's right. Or if it will help, living a holy life. We have heard it said many times that the Saints in the Church are not merely those people whose icons hang on the walls or those who are commemorated in the calendar of the Church but rather that we are the living community of Saints, the fellowship of holy ones, and if we are not that we are nothing! We've all said it: "I'm no saint." But the Church responds: "Why not? That is exactly what Jesus wants us to be." Therefore, it is necessary for us to strive to live a godly life and if you think that's not possible remember what God says to us through the Psalmist, "I said ye are God's, and all of you are children of the Most High," (82:6).
We crown our ascetic lives by attending Church and functioning as a part of the family of God, by receiving the sacraments because Holy Communion and Penance are Life for the Soul and we pray always so that we can get connected to God. Finally we are obedient, for the Lord said, "If you love me keep my Commandments," (St. John 14:15).
We apply the principles of asceticism not because asceticism brings salvation, but that we may become one with God and to fulfill the supplication of our Lord who prayed, "That they all may be one as thou Father are in me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us," (John 17:21).
By asceticism we grow in godliness and as we grow closer to that desired oneness, we are renewed . . . made brand new by the love of Christ who makes all things new.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America