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The five types

By St. Mother Maria Skobtsova

(…continued from here)

Four: Ascetical Piety

St. Mother Maria SkobtsovaThe ascetical type of religious life is not unique to Christianity. It existed at all times and in the history of every religion. This shows that it exists as an expression of some essential characteristics of the human psyche. One cannot say that asceticism belongs to Christianity alone— it is a common characteristic of Hinduism and Islam and it existed in ancient paganism. Moreover asceticism is a typical manifestation within a non-religious milieu so characteristic of nineteenth century revolutionary trends. It can be said that the periods in the life of the Church which were not penetrated by asceticism were periods of decay, decline, without talent and generally were flabby. It can also be said that the periods of secular history which lacked the stamp of asceticism were likewise unfruitful and without creative talent. Religious life is always one of asceticism, since it demands sacrifices in the name of higher spiritual values. Parallel with this, in its depths creative life is likewise a way of asceticism since it also demands total sacrifice in the name of higher creative values. It can be said that asceticism never died out within the Church. There were periods when it was dormant, when it was an achievement of solitary souls only. The most common and the most characteristic expression of religiosity was actually anti-ascetical.

With this in mind it seems that it is almost impossible to speak about the ascetical type of piety in conjunction with the other types which are more or less elective, whereas asceticism touches upon the eternal depths of religious life. Aside from such a genuine and eternal asceticism, there is another extraordinary phenomenon about which we must speak and which we must separate from and isolate from the general ascetical trend.

This special ascetical type has its roots not in Christianity but more likely in Eastern religions and it entered Christianity as a kind of a special influence of these religions and transformed the basic understanding about asceticism. The difference is not in the method of carrying out the ascetical ideal in life. These can be various but all these variations can be adapted everywhere and do not characterize a basic difference in their internal structure. The basic differences lie in what motivates the individual to enter upon the path of asceticism. There can be any number of motivations, many of which are, in varying degrees, incompatible with Christianity. There are even motivations which are in radical contradiction to Christianity. We will start with these.

These are specifically characteristic for Hinduism, these are the basics of Yoga. They resound in our days as fundamental principles of all kinds of occult teachings, of Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Their aims are to attain spiritual power. Asceticism is a specific system of psycho-physical exercises which restrains and transfigures a person’s normal path and is directed towards the attainment of special attributes of power over the soul and over nature. It is possible, by a determined and repetitious effort, to control one’s body. One can achieve tremendous psychic changes within oneself and a mastery over matter and spirit. Just as a gymnast must exercise to achieve dexterity, just as a wrestler must follow a specific regimen to develop his muscular strength, just as a singer must practice scales in order to perfect his voice, so must the ascetic of this type follow specific directions, must exercise, must repeat the same routine over and over, maintain a special diet, sensibly schedule his time, curb his habits, control his life, all this to develop to the maximum those forces with which he has been endowed by nature. The task of such asceticism is determined by the principle of harboring natural benefits, to develop them and to be able to apply them. He doesn’t look for any transcendence, he does not expect any kind of supernatural powers. He neither thinks about it nor believes in it. Over him is stretched a tent separating him from the heavens and there is no path beyond that. But he knows that in this circumscribed natural world, not everything is fully utilized, that there are tremendous potentials, that it is possible, within its confines, to attain strength and power over all living and existing things, with only one limited reservation. Nature’s powers are immense but even they have their limits. For him there is no other uncircumscribed or limitless source of power. Thus the task of such an occult ascetic is to accumulate, gather, preserve, expand and utilize all natural possibilities. This path can lead to tremendous achievements.

What then can be offered in opposition to such a unique spiritual naturalism? The only thing in this world which is more powerful than this is the teaching about spiritual poverty, about the distribution and the spreading of spiritual strengths, about the utmost impoverishment of the spirit. The only self-determination which is more powerful than this are the words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Although these words in themselves determine the whole essence of the Christian soul and the Christian response to the natural human power, it is must be noted that the anti-Christian, occult relationships to asceticism have been introduced into our piety by way of ancient Eastern influences, through Syria and through her particular type of religiosity. One need not overrate this ascetical influence on Christianity but nonetheless, it is still there.

There is another relationship where asceticism as a method for attaining higher spiritual values becomes an end in itself. The individual performs one or another type of ascetical exercises not for the purpose of being freed from something or because they give him something but simply because they are challenging and because they demand an effort. They add nothing to him in the outer world nor urge him onward in his inner path, but he simply feels that he cannot limit himself in any way and only because of this he must perform them. The surmounting of an obstacle as the only goal, an exercise for the sake of exercise is, at best, a working-out of a simple submission to disciplinary challenges and is, of course, a distortion of the ascetic path.

All of the above are trifles when compared with their fundamental conflict with the Christian world view. It concerns the very substances, the basic concepts of the goals of Christian life. This conflict in some way splits the Christian world into two basic feelings for, and understanding of, that world. We are speaking of the soul’s salvation. It is without a doubt that the true and genuine Christian life offers the soul’s salvation as its fruitful goal. The Church crowns her saints, martyrs, passion-bearers and confessors with the incorruptible crowns of eternal life in the Promised Land. The Heavenly Kingdom is eternal bliss. The Church teaches that there is a struggle involved to attain the Heavenly Kingdom. This is confessed by Christians of all convictions and persuasions. Along with this, the question of the soul’s salvation becomes a sword which cuts through the whole of Christianity’s spiritual world.

This understanding consists of two radical concepts which lead to different moral laws and to different standards of conduct. It would be difficult to overlook the fact that both concepts have notable and saintly champions, that both views have an indisputable, traditional authority within the Church. There are whole periods when ascetical Christianity was colored by one or the other shade of its understanding. Both schools have their systems, principles and practical rules. Look into the massive volumes of the Philokalia, read the Patericon, listen— even in this day— to sermons about ascetical Christianity. You will see immediately that there is a weighty and profound tradition of the ascetical school. You need only to accept its testaments and to follow their ways. Which are they? What are their teachings?

The person who bears upon himself the stain of Original Sin and who is called to salvation through the Blood of Christ has just that one goal— the salvation of his soul. This goal will determine everything. It determines the struggle against everything that stands in the way of salvation. It defines all means to attain it. The person on earth is, so to say, placed at the beginning of an endless path towards God and everything is either a hindrance or a help along that path. In essence there are two polarities: on the one hand, the eternal Creator of the world, on the other, the Redeemer of my soul. And this miserable soul of mine must strive towards Him. What are the means for passage along this way? The ascetical mortification of one’s flesh is the first step. It is prayer and fasting. It is rejection of the values of this world and of attachment to them. It is obedience, which likewise mortifies sinful will, as fasting mortifies the sinful, passionate flesh.

All actions of the soul, the whole complex of external activities which become the responsibility of that particular person, must be examined from the point of view of obedience. He cannot decline to do this, he is obliged to carry these out conscientiously if they are given to him as obedience. But he need not burden his soul with them constantly, since the soul must be burdened with one thing only— the path towards its salvation. The whole world, its woes, its suffering, labor in all its fields— is a kind of a huge laboratory, a kind of a field of experience, where I carry out my obedience, and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ— I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same detachment, because all these things are tasks and exercises which enable me to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly exercise virtues and thus I must perform acts of Christian love, but that love must reflect obedience— for we are called and commanded to love— and we must love.

The measure of love is self-evident. It is the measure of all things. While loving I must always remember that the fundamental task of the human soul is to be saved. No matter how love helps me in my salvation, no matter how beneficial it is for me, it must immediately be bridled and ended if it does not enrich but diminishes my spiritual world. Love is the same kind of pious exercise, the same kind of activity, as any other external act. One thing only is important— it is my obedient stance before God, my Deification, my turning towards the full experience of his eternal Good. The world may abide in sin, it can tear itself apart with its own defects— all these are insignificant things when compared to the immovable light of Divine perfection and all this is simply a place, a touchstone so to speak, where I can perfect my good acts. How can I even think that I can give something to the world? I, who am nothing, stained by Original Sin, corrupted by personal vices and sins? My gaze is turned into myself and sees only my own abomination, my own scabs and wounds. One must think about those, one must weep and repent, one must push aside all obstacles to salvation. Where is there time to worry about the woes of others— one does this by carrying out virtuous acts.

That’s precisely how it is. In reality, you will not see this immediately, that this is how a person perceives the Christian teaching about love— he is merciful, he visits the sick, he is attentive to human misery, he offers people his love. But if you pay careful attention you will discern that he does this not because of a self-renouncing and sacrificial love, laying down his soul for his friends, but as an ascetical exercise. This is how his own soul is trained to save itself. He knows, according the Apostle’s word, that love is the greatest of all, i.e. that beyond all other good acts there must be love— and he will train himself in this, along with other virtues— he will teach himself, he will force himself to love— so long as it is neither devastating nor dangerous. A strange and frightful holiness— or an imitation of holiness— develops as a result.

You will note a genuine and responsible path of real achievement, a refinement, a perfection, but along with this, you will experience a chill, you will sense a limitless spiritual parsimony, a kind of miserliness. Another person, another person’s soul, becomes not the object, but a means for the benefit of my own soul. Such an understanding of Christianity is often a trait of strong and manly souls. It can become a temptation for the more precious, more self- sacrificing, for those closer to the Kingdom of God. It becomes more tempting for its limitless purity, for its intensity, in all its false and imposing versions of sanctity. What can be said here? How can one compare his own lukewarm state, his lack of action to this massive and vigorous spirit, striding forward with giant steps? How does one avoid being tempted?

There is only one thing, only one shield against such temptation. These are the words: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

If you measure the true essence of those things by the above criterion, you will begin to sense that such an ascetical rejection of the world is nothing more than a perfection of egoism, an irresponsible and an intolerable act of self-preservation.

And now there will be some strange contrasts, some surprising coincidences. Such a diametrically opposed positing of one’s “I” before the world can and does take place in other than ascetical circumstances and even non-religious motivations. Are not the genuine representatives of this world likewise fenced off from the world by an impenetrable wall devoid of love? No matter what their particular concern in life may be, within their conscience there is always that insurmountable chasm between the “I” and the world. The more egotistical, i.e. the more secularized is the person, the further removed he is from the genuine life of the world. Furthermore, the world for him is a kind of an inanimate comfort or a kind of a vacuous trial against which he posits his sole animated “I”. In this sense we can see that the opposites do coincide. We see here on both poles an assertion of one’s own “I”, an assertion of a grasping, greedy and miserly love of one’s own possessions, be this possession what one attains by way of an ascetical path or by external material benefits of worldly success. The significant thing here is the obsessive and miserly relationship towards that possession.

What can one say about the role such asceticism can play in the life of the Church? Here, perhaps one must think negatively. The more horrible and sinful is the world, the more passionate is the desire to get away from it, the more difficult it is to love its image, distorted by hate and suffering, the greater the rejection of love. The more difficult the path within the distorted life, the greater the nostalgia for better things. Today the world is unhealthy and even dangerous for the salvation of the ascetic’s soul. Clearly prudence demands that one avoid contact with it in order to keep oneself from that danger. However, the fervent intensity of the ascetical spirit which has abided in the human soul throughout all periods of history always leads individual souls towards those heights where they can go to shake the world’s dust from their feet, carrying out man’s one worthy task— the task of saving one’s own soul.

Here I would like to pause and touch upon some of the unique characteristics of today’s world which makes it even more difficult for the person thirsting for ascetical detachment and a zeal for the salvation of one’s soul. There is no question about one’s inner and outer absence of well-being. There is the threat of war, an extinguishing of the spirit of freedom which tears people apart by revolution and dictatorship, class hatred, a decline of moral principles. One can’t imagine any social ills which have not affected today’s life. And along with this we are surrounded by a crowd oblivious of the era’s tragedy. Along with this we are surrounded by limitless self-satisfaction, a total lack of doubts, physical and spiritual satiety, almost a total surfeit. This is not a feast in the time of plague. A feast during a plague carries its own immense tragedy, it is but one step, one gesture from religious contrition and enlightenment, it is a kind of a courageous despair. Yet if an individual who finds himself there, who wants to offer his love to the world, he will not have any difficulty in finding words, a welcome, an invitation and love.

Today, during the plague, we systematically add up our modest daily profit and in the evening go off to the cinema. There is no talk of a courageous despair because there is no despair— there is only complete satisfaction and complete spiritual peace. There is no need to mention the tragic psychology of today’s person. And every fervent prophet, every preacher will face a quandary: on which side of the café table shall he sit, how will he bless today’s stock market gains, how will he break through, trample and destroy this sticky, gooey mass surrounding the soul of today’s philistine? How will be burn the people’s hearts with words? The trouble is, they are covered with a thick, impenetrable, fireproof shield. Provide answers for their doubts? But they have no doubts about anything. Disturb them? But they are satisfied with their modest acts of charity. After all they don’t feel worse than anyone else. Paint them pictures of the coming judgement and the eternal beatitude of the righteous? But they don’t believe in any of this, and anyway they are completely satisfied with the blessings of this age. But this inertia, this self- satisfaction and the feeling of well-being of today’s man is very difficult to take into one’s heart and to love because it summons up incredulity rather than pity. This leads to still more reasons for wanting to shake off the dust from one’s feet, because it becomes evident that no amount of participation in such a petty life can change anything in it.

Here arises a particularly elevated type of spiritual egocentrism. Alongside it all types of egocentrism likewise arise. A person becomes overburdened by his impotence, the person clearly and attentively becomes conscious of all his sins, all deviations and failures, the person sees the nothingness of his soul and is constantly disturbed by the snakes and scorpions which are nested there. The person repents of his sins but his repentance does not release him from the thought of his nothingness, it is not transfigured in him and he, again and again, returns to the only thing that interests him— the sight of his personal nothingness and personal sinfulness. Not only the cosmos and all of human history, but the individual person’s fate, his suffering, his failures, his joys and his dreams— all fade away and disappear in the light of my downfall, of my sin. The whole world reflects the glow from the fire of my soul. More than that— the whole world somehow burns up in the conflagration of my soul.

But my own understanding of Christianity at that moment demands the deepest analysis of myself, a struggle against my passions, a prayer for my own salvation. Such a person can come up with only one kind of prayer to the Creator of the universe, to the Pantocrator, to the Redeemer of all mankind — a prayer for myself, for my own salvation, for my own mercy. Sometimes this prayer is for absolutely final and frightful gifts. Sometimes the Creator of the universe is asked to respond to my very modest prayerful petitions — I am only asking him for peaceful and undisturbed sleep.

Spiritual egocentrism undermines genuine ascetical conditions. It walls off the person from the universe, it makes of him a spiritual miser — and this miserliness begins to spread and grow quickly, because the person begins to notice that the more he gains, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of spiritual life. In it everything that has not been distributed, everything that is saved, everything not lovingly given away, somehow degenerates, burns up. The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who increases his talents. And further accumulation becomes emptier and emptier, leading to aridity, to spiritual numbness, to a complete degeneration and a destruction of one’s spiritual tissues. A process of auto-intoxication by spiritual values takes place.

Every type of egocentrism always results in self-poisoning and a kind of satiety, to an inability of a proper mastery of material. It can be boldly stated that spiritual egocentrism is completely subject to this law. And this self-poisoning can lead the person to a complete spiritual death.

Perhaps this is the most frightening thing that threatens a person and it is especially frightening because it is difficult to discern, because it unnoticeably undermines genuine spiritual values with false ones, because at times it calls for a rejection of improperly understood profound Christian values without which it is impossible— a rejection of asceticism.

(…to be continued)