Asceticism In Christian Living*

Asceticism In Christian Living*

Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God. 

Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives. 


There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).

In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life. 


To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’. 

Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this. 


The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.

Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love. 

Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life. 

We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience. 

More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated. 

There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love. 

Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily. 

One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love. 

What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that. 


Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives. 

If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person. 

If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases. 

It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned. 


Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person. 


Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224

 Macquarrie, J., (Ed.) A Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 20 f. Palazzini, P. (Ed.) ‘Asceticism’, Dictionary of Moral Theology, p. 94 f.

Rahner, K., Theological Investigations, 3, ch. 5; 7, p. 19 ff. Tanquerey, A., The Spiritual Life, Part 2, Bk 1, ch. 3. Wulf, F., ‘Asceticism’, Sacramentum Mundi, 1, p. 110 ff. 

Continue reading “Asceticism In Christian Living*”
Exterior and Interior Solitude

Exterior and Interior Solitude

When the monk has learned the secrets of solitude, when be has come to terms with his loneliness, he will find himself able, when obliged to mix with the world, to take with him his own solitude and live within it in recollection. He will have learned, without having consciously acquired a technique, how to keep sheltered his essential self in the midst of distraction. But even so, it would be foolish for him to take risks; solitude can be easily displaced, The monk, like Ruskin’s artist, should be “fit for the best society of men, and keep out of it.”  Continue reading Exterior and Interior Solitude

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

The Carthusians

To the poor of the world we give bread or whatever else our resources afford or goodwill suggests: we rarely receive them under our roof but instead send them to find lodgings in the village. For it is notfor the temporal care of the bodies of our neighbours that we havefled to this desert, butfor the eternal salvation of our souls. Therefore it is not surprising if we give more friendship and assistance to those who come here for the sake of their souls than to those who come for the sake of their bodies.

Guigo I, Consuetudines Cartusiae (hereafter CC) 20:1; (Latin text with French translation in Sources Chrdtiennes vol 313 (1984), p 206.

(Please note the that the photographs do not relate to the written article (but are of Carthusian origin) and are there purely for aesthetics)

Saint Bruno the Carthusian Ⓒ 2019 Theophilia @ deviantart

THIS extract from the earliest Carthusian customary (c.1125), the Consuetudines Cartusiae of Prior Guigo I, may appear somewhat chilly to those acquainted with St Benedict’s injunction to receive the poor as though receiving Christ himself (though in fact, as Guigo subsequently points out, the monks did give generously of what little they had to be distributed in nearby villages). But it underlines one of the most striking features of the early Carthusians, the ‘unworthy and useless poor men of Christ who dwell in the desert of the Chartreuse for love of the name of Jesus’, as another early prior of the Grande Chartreuse put it: the careful and coherent way in which, from the very start, they set about creating a manner of life that would be appropriate in every particular to the vocation they had embraced. The first charterhouses were, like the Chartreuse itself, in distinctly inhospitable (though not always uninhabited) places; the monks sought to be self-sufficient as far as they possibly could; and one of the distinctive features of the early communities was the way they set about clearing or purchasing the land around the monastery (within the termini they themselves specified) in order to guarantee the solitude they needed. This might seem to imply that the ‘poor men of Christ’ had little to do with the poor men and women of this world.

La Grande Chartreuse

Yet the contradiction is more apparent than real. One of the striking features of the early Carthusians, as with the Cistercians and others, was the way in which, even from their mountainous retreats, they took part in the affairs of the world outside. Like St Bernard (with whom he corresponded), Prior Guigo I did not hesitate to tell the Church how to behave itself, and to use his influence to espouse the principles of the Gregorian reform; and the early monks of the nearby monastery of Portes, one of the first to affiliate to the fledgling order in the early twelfth century, wrote a number of letters offering detailed spiritual guidance both to religious and lay people. 

For all the rigour of their asceticism, then, the early Carthusians did not see themselves as entirely cut off from the needs of the Church as a whole: indeed they saw their vocation not so much as a flight from the world as a flight for the world, and their way of life, centred upon what Guigo I called the ‘quasi bina dilectio‘ (almost twofold love, of God and of neighbour), as a challenge and even a witness to their contemporaries. The reluctance to help the physically poor was part of this asceticism, part of a means to a greater end: those who sought to live with the utmost simplicity and in the utmost poverty themselves would have little material wealth or property to share with others. What they could share was something altogether deeper: a philosophia, or ‘lived wisdom’, that might touch hearts and change lives far beyond the bleak termini of the charterhouse. 

From the beginning, then, what the Carthusians had to offer was not material wealth (they have succeeded, perhaps to a greater extent than any other monastic order, in avoiding that altogether), nor even gems of individual guidance, but the witness of their lives. The Grande Chartreuse itself was founded by St Bruno, formerly chancellor of the cathedral at Rheims, in 1084; and it is clear that the distinctive lineaments and rhythm of the Carthusian life owe their origins to him, even though it was the fifth prior, Guigo I, who (as we have seen) first committed their customs to writing. The life was a coherent and carefully worked out blend of the cenobitic and eremitic, each fulfilling the other; and it was made possible by the institution of conversi who were not so much servants as lay monks, and whose lives involved more manual labour than that of the choir monks, yet who from the start were clearly seen to be integral and full members of the whole community. 

There were no novice masters in the early charterhouses; and monastic formation took place in the cell: Guigo I says that one of the experienced monks (as well as the prior) would be deputed to visit the novice there ‘to instruct him in necessary things’. The life of a Carthusian choir-monk was minutely prescribed, and with good reason: the balance of solitude and community, the blend of prayer, physical work, recreation and study was carefully structured and maintained. From the start, then, spiritual guidance in the charterhouse was primarily a group affair, not an individual one: the whole community, in their corporate liturgy, chapter meetings and recreation as well as in their long hours in solitude, took responsibility for one another; and their founder described their life as ‘His [Christ’s] school, under the discipline of the Holy Spirit’. Tilden Edwards has pointed out that group spiritual direction is in fact the standard form of guidance in the Christian tradition; and the Carthusians were and still are among its exemplars. What this meant in practice is the subject of most of the remainder of this article. 

First and foremost, and notwithstanding the emphasis on the community already noted, the Carthusian monk or nun s had to develop a considerable capacity for self-knowledge and awareness. In a remarkable set of meditations, written in about 1115, Guigo I reflected constantly and critically on his own experience and reactions. This is what he wrote about a disaster at Vespers: 

Notice how, when you recently tripped up in front of the brethren by saying one antiphon instead of another, your mind tried to think of a way of putting the blame on something else–either on the book itself, or on some other thing. For your heart was reluctant to see itself as it really is, and so it pretended to itself that it was different, inclining itself to evil words to excuse its sin. The Lord will reprove you, and set before you what you have done: you won’t be able to hide from yourself any longer, or to escape from yourself. 

Some of the meditations are extremely short, such as the pithy Meditation 87: ‘Insult any harlot you like–if you dare’. Invariably, however, the emphasis is upon self-scrutiny: 

There are certain tastes, like that of honey; and there are certain temperaments and passions, like those of the flesh. When these things are either taken away or damaged, notice how this is for you (quomodo sit tibi vide). 

It is also worth noting that this self-scrutiny involves a genuinely pastoral concern for others: 

Notice how you can, in the hope of what is to come, love the harvest in the young shoot, and the twisted tree-trunk. In the same way you must love those who are not yet good . . . 

Not much is gained if you take away from a person something that he holds onto wrongly; but it is if, by our words of encouragement and by your example, you get him to let it go of his own accord…

This is not unhealthy self-absorption, but the indispensable precondition, not only for the Carthusian life, but for any life centred upon love: indeed the psychological acuteness of Guigo’s emphasis on understanding yourself and reflecting on your reactions to all that happens to you is remarkable. To know ourselves, as Guigo makes clear throughout his 476 meditations, is to become aware both of our inherent predisposition to run away from the truth, and of the divine love existing deep within us. Yet to face this truth will invariably be painful: for it is not just the truth, but the truth crucified, that we are called to worship (‘Sine aspectu et decore crucique affixa, adoranda est veritas’); and by discovering what it means to love God without condition or strings attached, we are freed from the dependence on (or possessiveness of) others in order to love them as we should do–to seek their true good, not simply what we think is good for them. The theology of love underpins the whole of St Bruno’s and Guigo’s conception of the Carthusian life, and informs its most practical prescriptions; and this constant and rigorous probing of one’s own interior intentions and reactions is its most fundamental prerequisite.

Secondly, the Carthusian life was characterised by the coherent interweaving of theology and lifestyle, of the individual and corporate, that is embodied by the Latin word utilitas. In his meditations Guigo I wrote: 

Happy is the person who chooses somewhere he may work without anxiety. Now this is a sure choice and worthwhile thing to work at (labor utilis) — the desire to do good to all, so that you want them to be people who do not need your help. For the more people seem to be concerned with their own interests (propriis utililatibus), the less they are doing what is good for them. For this is the distinctive good (propria utilitas) of each individual — to want to do good to all. But who understands this? 

Whoever, therefore, seeks to work for his own good, not only does not find it, but also incurs great harm to his soul. For while he seeks his own good, which cannot be sought at all, he is rejected by the common good, that is, by God. For just as there is one ~ nature for everyone, so also there is one common good (ita et utilitas).

It is worth noting in passing Guigo’s psychological perception here too: the emphasis upon seeking to set people free from being dependent on your help is a fundamental aspect of all spiritual direction. The emphasis on the common good, on the essentially corporate aspect of Carthusian spirituality, is even more important however, and underlines the stress on group support and guidance referred to above. And the integrated nature of their lives went further than that: both Guigo I and the Carthusians of Portes, writing letters of spiritual guidance, stressed the interweaving of what was traditionally called ‘spiritual exercise’ (the fourfold monastic pattern of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation) with public liturgical worship, physical exercise, study and other aspects of the common life. This a crucial point: whether later Carthusian (and other) writers, such as Guigo II, (whose Scala Claustralium or ‘Ladder of Monks became very popular after his death in c.1190) explored in great detail the relationship between the four different ingredients of ‘spiritual exercise’, Guigo I shows no interest in that at all, instead concentrating on emphasising the relationship between all of them and the other, more corporate, aspects of the Carthusian life, as well as to the heart of the monastic vocation itself. Love of God, and of neighbour— the two parts of the quasi bina dilectio belong together: by devoting his life to those exercises which, in the context of solitude and poverty, dispose him to receive and be transformed by the love of God, the monk who has apparently renounced his neighbour discovers instead the surest possible means of loving him. 

This exploration of the practice and theology of the early Carthusians may appear to have very little to do with the wider subject of spiritual guidance within the Carthusian tradition as a whole. In fact, however, it has everything to do with it: the distinctive features of Carthusian spiritual guidance are not to be found by examining later works which happen to have been written by Carthusians but which in most cases could as easily have been written by members of any religious order, but by coming to see that it was their whole lives, and above all their common life, which was their primary contribution to the lives of others. When Guigo I wrote his life of St Hugh of Grenoble (and, to a considerable extent, when Adam Abbot of Eynsham wrote the life of another early Carthusian, St Hugh of Lincoln), he was not producing just another work of hushed hagiography, but offering what is in effect the essence of the Carthusian life as it could be (and was) lived by busy Christians ‘in the world’: both Hughs were bishops, both were described as incarnating the theology of love which lay at the heart of the Carthusian vocation, and as seeking, in lives unconditionally devoted to God alone, to be free to discern others’ true worth as well as to issue prophetic warnings about social and ecclesiastical evils. Instead of simply giving the world aims, the Carthusians gave it people: a significant number of bishops and others emerged during the centuries from the termini of the charterhouses. Instead of compromising their own form of life, they offered its virtues, suitably adapted, for those living in the world. 

Not everyone, then, has to renounce everything and don the white Carthusian cowl in order to recognize, and live, the distinctive principles and dynamic which informed and still inform their vocation. The slow and costly process of reflecting regularly on your own experience and reactions, and above all on your own motives and intentions; the concern to foster a thoroughgoing openness, even passivity, towards God in order to be more free to love other people without seeking to dominate or manipulate them; the willingness to work away at creating (and helping others to create) a pattern of life that integrates both solitude and common life in such a way as to fulfil each; and the readiness to seek a genuine simplicity of life which might help you live in loving and hidden identification with the physically poor and deprived–all these are essential dimensions of any authentic Christian spirituality. And to achieve them we will need guidance; not only, or even primarily, the one-to-one individual guidance that has in recent years become popular, but also the kind of critical yet loving mutual support and encouragement that a group, family or Christian parish community can offer its members, not by the eloquence of its speech or even by the quality of each person’s private piety, but precisely by the openness and attentive love which informs its common life. 

The spirituality of the Carthusian life was influenced, like that of any other order, by the prevailing insights and circumstances of the times; and most of the authors and texts mentioned in the remainder of this article wrote letters and treatises on spiritual guidance which in large part could have been written by members of any contemporary enclosed order. The 1972 Statutes of the Order contain restrictions in this respect which not all former Carthusians have observed. The Statutes explicitly say, for example: 

We never give spiritual direction by letter; nor may any of us preach in public. If seculars do not benefit from our silence, much less will they from our speech.

From earliest times, however, the Carthusians were able to reach people without speaking: Guigo I himself describes in detail the distinctively Carthusian form of praedicatio muta, which was the copying of manuscripts, a form of apostolate peculiarly well suited to contemplative monks. This practice continued thereafter: Michael Sargent has pointed out the way in which late medieval Carthusian monks, particularly (though not only) in England, translated and copied earlier spiritual texts, partly in order to make them available to a wider literate (but not Latin-reading) lay audience, partly to combat the spread of Wycliffite and other forms of heresy. This is important: the Carthusians have never entirely separated theology from spirituality, and have never entirely lost their concern for truth, even in periods when the practice of prayer was at its most affective. The ‘Mirrour of the Blessed Life of Jesu Christ’ by Nicholas Love (c.1410), a Carthusian of Mount Grace, Yorkshire, is a good example of this: is a translation of an earlier work by the Pseudo-Bonaventure, and its popularity suggests that it served both a devotional and a propagandist purpose.

The writings of some later Carthusians certainly suggest that their praedicatio was anything but muta—and (as has already been said) much of it contains little that is distinctively Carthusian. Ludolph of Saxony, for example, who was a monk of the charterhouse of Coblentz and who lived from 1295 to 1377, wrote a Life of Christ which (to judge by the number of manuscript copies and printed editions) was widely disseminated: its emphasis on imitatio Christi was typical of the age, though Ludolph’s reflections on the delights of natural beauty recall similar passages in the beautiful letter of St Bruno to his friend Raoul le Verd. Others produced works that were more explicitly concerned with spiritual guidance: Robert, a monk of the charterhouse of Le Parc-en-Charnie in France who died in 1388, wrote Le chastel perilleux, a treatise written to his cousin, who was a Benedictine nun: it is full of practical advice about contemplative prayer, praying in common, the sacramental life and other subjects likely to be of interest to both religious and lay readers. Others seem to have acquired something of a reputation as spiritual guides: the prolific Denys, a Dutch Carthusian who lived from 1402 to 1471, wrote innumerable letters of counsel, only a few of which survive, and also complete sequences of sermons, both for religious and for those ‘in the world’: his complete works fill over forty substantial volumes. Finally, Richard Methley (1451-1528), also of Mount Grace, wrote a number of treatises on the monastic and spiritual life, and appears to have been in some demand as a director. 

As time passed, then, the Carthusians became involved in the practice of spiritual guidance to a degree far greater than was envisaged either by their founders or by their modern successors. And yet the primary concern of the Carthusians has never been spiritual guidance, but the way of living which, as we have seen, was their most distinctive act of witness. The establishing in 1984 of the first Carthusian monastery in the Third World, in southern Brazil, illustrates this point: their principal contribution to the poor among whom they now live is likely to be this hidden and loving identification, in the crucified pauper Christus, that is articulated in the Carthusian vocation, rather than any commitment to an active apostolate. And to a society less committed than ours to the pursuit of privatised perfection, such an apostolate might be infinitely more fruitful than we suppose. Why? Because, better than any frantic activist, it may help us all to rethink our values: in the desert, waiting and passivity and silence are inherently creative, not useless; apparent redundancy in the world’s eyes and your own can allow God to use you for his purposes; in and through the poor, the solitary and the powerless, God ushers in the kingdom of heaven. The most recent Statutes of the Order express this with simple eloquence: 

In choosing this, the ‘best part’, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation… 

If, therefore, we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut up in themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Set apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God.

Continue reading “Traditions of Spiritual Guidance”
Prayer and Asceticism

Prayer and Asceticism


The title of this paper is a comfortably loose-fitting one. That little word ‘and’ gives me considerable freedom of movement which I intend to take. From the outset I want to make two points which will have an important bearing on all I have to say. The first is a warning against narrowing down the scope and meaning of prayer. In this paper I intend to use the word prayer to describe an activity or state of mind which is wider than that covered by formal prayer, such as recitation of Office or periods of formal ‘meditation’. I happen to think that most of us pray a good deal more than we perhaps suspect. Like the character in Molière’s play who was delighted to discover that for more than forty years he had been talking prose, we may be encouraged to greater effort in prayer by the reflection that we are already praying more than we think.

My second preliminary point is this. Of all the possible senses in which my title can be taken I want to exclude only one, namely, thinking of prayer as an ascetical exercise. Let me explain. Some kind of asceticism is necessary as a prelude to the more formal kinds of prayer, since we have to overcome a natural tendency to laziness. A great deal of asceticism is needed if we are to put into practice some of the insights granted to us in prayer; insights about the attitudes and behaviour expected of a pilgrim on his way through lite with a commission to pray and work for the coming of the Kingdom. But prayer itself should not be considered as asceticism. 

Prayer for the Christian is a necessity rather than a duty. Our western itch for regulating activities has had, it seems to me, a serious effect on our whole attitude to prayer. Our guiding principle has often appeared to be ‘If it moves, regulate it, lest it become an indulgence.” We are always in danger of an undisclosed puritanism, by which I mean an unconscious assumption that if a course of action is smooth, perhaps even at times actually enjoyable, it is somehow less meritorious than the long slog. So we decide that it is better to speak of our duty to pray. Safer at any rate. That way we can legislate for it, make solemn pronouncements about the danger of not praying, give pep-talks about it as if its main purpose were to tone up our moral fibre. 

Muscular Christianity is a peculiarly western thing. It flourished in Victorian England, especially among Broad Churchmen who were resolutely opposed to any leaning towards mysticism. In a school context, moral earnestness saw a simple solution for most problems in a few strenuous rounds of the football pitch followed by a cold bath. In 1933 a book of reminiscences about boating at Eton College was published. The author, referring to the visit of the two famous revivalists Moody and Sankey to the school in 1875, wrote this immortal sentence. ‘As I have several times had occasion to observe, ecstatic religious emotionalism is destructive of good oarsmanship.” His theological language is a little imprecise, but he was clearly more concerned about the effect of prayer on asceticism than the other way round. Prayer could be fitted into this atmosphere of moral hygiene only with difficulty. Many hymns of the period are a rather horrible example of what happened. ‘They were either hearty in a bluff sort of way or else they were appallingly sentimental. In either case there was little or no biblical or doctrinal sustenance behind them. 

Fr. G. Tyrrell SJ

Nor did Catholicism escape this attitude. The term Jansenism is often loosely and inaccurately used to describe something similar. In this atmosphere will-power is all. As Fr. George Tyrrell SJ once observed, ‘Morality divorced from mysticism is a lean sort of religion.” My point is quite simply that you can make anything unattractive if you put your mind to it. One of the most effective wavs is to harp on it as a duty. If you told schoolchildren every day that it was their duty to eat chips and ice-cream, and that anyone who did not was a disgrace, you would soon find the more adventurous (and rebellious) proclaiming the virtues of boiled potatoes and milk-pudding. 

I do not want to labour the point; but many of us grew up in an atmosphere which put prayer into a moral, canonical, and spiritual straight jacket. I am not going to indulge in a fashionable attack on the canonists, They merely codified an attitude which was implicit in the ecclesiology of the age. If the liturgists have now come into their kingdom, they were not entirely free of blame for the fact that many of us in our unreformed days took them for rubricians and thought them a little precious. Again it was the passion for the sort of minute direction which allows the actors little or no freedom of movement. It is not difficult to appreciate why there is a reaction today in the direction of informality. 

To return to the reasons for my exclusion of prayer as asceticism. Prayer is the articulation of faith. It stands or falls with faith. If we stop praying, the likelihood is that we have stopped believing. Tf I really believe, I shall feel the need to pray. Faith is the conviction that God is speaking through the murmur, or sometimes the uproar, of everyday events. His word has to be listened for as it comes to us from out of those events. Prayer, real prayer, presupposes an unconditional openness to the God who speaks. Pious self-deception is always a hazard in prayer. I say ‘pious’ because it is possible for us to enter on prayer with our minds made up on what God is going to say to us. Without realising it, we simply lay down the terms which will govern our conversation. Some of us are very bad listeners. We are wired for transmission only. Hence, though I am refusing to treat prayer itself as a form of asceticism I want to emphasise the role of asceticism in the attitudes we bring to prayer, not least of which is readiness to listen. 

In this respect our first preparatory act of prayer must be to make ourselves vulnerable to God’s Spirit who breathes where he wills not where we think it would be more convenient for him to breathe. There is a certain passivity in prayer (and I mean ‘ordinary’ not ‘mystical’ prayer), analogous to that which we bring to great music. It is a creative passivity which lays us open to what the composer is going to say to us. For some of us this passivity, this seeming inactivity, may be a real penance, We can so easily regard prayer as an opportunity to justify ourselves to God and so to try to do all the talking. How seriously do we take Christ’s remark that our heavenly Father knows perfectly well what our needs are? This kind of asceticism is really a feature of faith. It is more difficult than we perhaps recognize to accept the very first premiss of the theology of revelation, namely, that all the initiatives lie with the Spirit. Faith is a response, not an initiative. We do not put ourselves in God’s presence; we are already there: and prayer is simply our advertence to that shattering fact. Divine transmission never ceases, and it is this which makes, or should make, prayer the unifying force in our lives, cutting across the barriers we erect between the sacred and the secular areas in those lives.

Asceticism, then, precedes and accompanies our praying; and it has to be tailored to our individual personalities. There is little uniformity either possible or desirable here. How many Christians are secretly rather disappointed by the Lord’s answer to his disciples’ request that he teach them to pray’? They had been watching him at prayer, they knew that John the Baptist had instructed his disciples in prayer, they did not want to be left out. So they asked him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ And they got the answer, “When you pray, say, “Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” It is no harm to allow ourselves to be taken aback by the spareness of that answer. There is nothing about types of prayer, composition of place, reflections, affections, resolutions and all those other ingenious complications which spiritual writers used to think up to help us to pray. Instead we are catapulted straight into the Father’s kingdom: that kingdom which is so seemingly ambiguous in the Lord’s teaching, at times to be thought of as lying in the future, at times, in the present. “Thy kingdom come.’ Everything else in the Lord’s prayer is subordinate to that heartfelt petition. All Jesus’ teaching revolved around it. It was his master theme. Most of his teaching-stories bear on it. It pulls us in two directions. It bids us to attend to the present and press on to the future, and leaves us to work out the details. It is for this that God has entered human history, to establish a reign. 

If prayer centres on the kingdom, it both indicates and calls for the qualities and attitudes inseparable from that kingdom. It accepts that life in the kingdom will be marked by the tension which is inherent in the kingdom itself. That tension is between present and future, between what is at hand now and what we have vet to make of it. The theme of pilgrimage, so prominent in the teaching of Vatican II, is the source of all true asceticism for Christians. Its message is summed up in the paradox: Become what you are, It is now time to examine a little more closely what Christian tradition understands by asceticism. First of all the word itself. Why not use the word penance? The simple answer is that ‘penance’ is an ambiguous word. Its biblical meaning is conversion, change of heart and life-style. Its popular meaning is an act or acts of self-denial. It would be seriously misleading to confuse the two. Why then not use the phrase ‘self-denial’ or the word ‘mortification’? The answer here is simply that the word ‘asceticism’ has a richer meaning than either ‘self-denial’ or ‘mortification’. Mortification is a word that has picked up some overtones and associations which may not be truly Christian at all, and it is vitally necessary to distinguish the genuine article from its imitations, no matter how heroic these imitations appear to be. It is possible to respect the single-mindedness and sheer strength of will which some of the saints brought to the infliction of pain on their bodies. Tt is possible to respect, indeed to be in awe of, such activities while being acutely aware that discipleship of Christ not merely does not call for this kind of action but may actually discourage it. In former ages thoroughgoing Christians expressed their love and commitment in this way. It is the love which must excite our admiration.

Let us be quite clear on this. We are talking about the kingdom revealed by Christ not about a man-made construction like Sparta. Therefore the question is theological in the proper sense of that word (theology being the attempt to analyse what has been revealed to us and thus what we are called on to believe). 

In the New Testament asceticism is a virtue which always points beyond itself and which has no specifically Christian value intrinsic to itself. Christ never speaks of it in isolation but always in connection with the kingdom. St Paul relates it to general Christian living. The overall New Testament picture is that of the need to take up our cross daily. ‘For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it: but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mark 8:35). Those profound and mysterious words about readiness to Jose one’s life lie at the heart of all Christian asceticism. The dying seed is the condition of all growth in the kingdom and is the pledge of the harvest which belongs to the new creation. It is a denial of self-sufficiency, of the instinct to dispose of our lives in a way that would bring us security, the man-made security which comes of digging in. 

Paul changes the metaphor but keeps the idea. Where the Lord liked to express himself in the images of growing things, Paul prefers the image of the human body. He seems to have been fascinated by athletic prowess and training. He must have watched athletes at their training sessions and admired their single-mindedness and readiness to make sacrifices for the sake of a wreath of laurels. They for a perishable reward, we for an imperishable one. There you have the Christian origin of the word asceticism. Askésis is exercise or training. We find this idea worked out in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

For Christ Jesus ‘I have accepted the loss of everything, and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ. … All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. … I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us … in Christ Jesus.” To the Corinthians he writes ‘I treat my body hard and make it obey me’ (1 Cor. 9:27); and to the Romans “You should make every part of your body into a weapon fighting on the side of God’ (Rom. 6:13). The letter to the Hebrews completes the New Testament picture. “Think of the way he (Jesus) stood such opposition from sinners and then you will not give up for want of courage. In the fight against sin, you have not yet had to keep fighting to the point of death’ (Heb. 12: 3-4).

Those texts enshrine the New Testament teaching on asceticism, which is, or ought to be, normative for all of us. This then is what revelation has to say on the subject. It is up to us to apply it to the circumstances of our lives today. Let me summarise it briefly. To follow Christ involves a single-mindedness that is prepared to give up everything, every possession, every relationship, however good and precious, even life itself, when the furthering of God’s kingdom calls for such renunciation; and we never know when that may be. 

Notice we are talking about a readiness, not necessarily the actual renunciation of all these things. Different things will be required of each of us. Being a Christian means being on call at all times for the needs of the kingdom. This readiness implies training, askésis, a toughening of ourselves, a self-discipline of body, mind and emotions analogous to that undertaken by athletes. That training has to be geared to the ultimate demand, the final sacrifice, death. 

‘In the fight against sin, you have not yet had to keep fighting to the point of death.’ What is for us a remote possibility was for the first Christians always a real and present likelihood, namely, martyrdom. It may seem rather impractical to speak of martyrdom in twentieth-century Ireland; but no consideration of asceticism would be complete without some reflections on the meaning of martyrdom. The martyr is by definition a witness to the kingdom. Martyrdom is the prototype of Christian sanctity, because it concentrates human choice into a stark and dramatic essence. The martyr chooses Christ when the opposite pole of choice is life itself. The choice is thus one of perfect love. In martyrdom Christianity is stripped down to essentials in their most concentrated form. This is the highest, noblest and most extreme demand that the gospel makes, or can make, of the Christian, The grace which is given so that the Christian can meet the demand is the last and most triumphant gift of the Spirit: for by choosing death for Christ’s sake the martyr allows the Spirit to complete, in the most perfect manner possible, his task of sanctification, All that Christ came to work in man is achieved in the martyr at the moment of his choosing death for Christ. Love is matched for love in so far as a finite being can match uncreated love. The mind of Christ has pervaded the mind of the martyr to the utter exclusion of all that is not Christ, The first Christian martyrs went to their deaths with joy in their hearts. One of them, St Ignatius of Antioch, has left us an exquisite description of how they saw themselves: ‘God’s wheat’, he says, ‘to be ground by animals’ teeth into Christ’s good bread.’ They were heroes, but their heroism placed no distance between them and the living. They had faced the most crucial of all choices, and they had chosen well. In that age any Christian might be asked to do the same and could expect the grace to choose as they had done. They were, by very title, martures, witnesses to Christ. Indeed they had no other special title, since all Christians were hagloi, saints. The fact that all Christians were potential martyrs narrowed the gap between those who had suffered and those who might at any time be called upon to do so. 

The link between martyrdom and asceticism is indicated by the Church historian Eusebius. Writing about the early Gaulish Christians, he speaks of two groups. One group ‘made a full confession of their testimony with the greatest eagerness. It was equally clear that others were not ready, that they had not trained and were still flabby, in no fit condition to face the strain of struggle to the death’ (Hist. Eccles., 1:15). Notice the athletic metaphor once again, Asceticism is training in readiness for the most comprehensive demand that can be made of any man, namely, that he should accept pain and suffering and lay down his life for the sake of the kingdom. 

Later ages were to lose some of the clarity and vigour of the biblical and early Christian vision by importing elements from outside of revelation. Thus many early Christians were influenced by Stoicism with its ideal of apatheia, the elimination of all, even good, desire, and by the Gnostic condemnation of material things as inherently evil. Clement of Alexandria could write, ‘It is impossible that he who has been once made perfect by love, and feasts eternally and insatiably on the boundless joy of contemplation, should delight in small and grovelling things’ (he was not referring to sinful pursuits, by the way). 

I want to take one further illustration from the early centuries before I attempt to draw some practical conclusions for our own contemporary lives. It is a rather important illustration for us today. As we have seen, asceticism was initially regarded as a training for martyrdom, which Origen called ‘the normal culmination of the Christian life’. It prepared Christians to live in a hostile world where Caesar could be expected to persecute and murder Christ’s followers. The lines were clearly drawn and the issues Were unambiguous. Then quite suddenly at the beginning of the fourth century Caesar not merely stopped persecuting the Church: he sought entry into it, thus causing a spiritual crisis. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the traumatic effect this had on Christian consciousness. To many Christians then, it appeared easier to live a Christian life with Caesar as enemy than with Caesar as patron. According to Louis Bouyer, the problems posed for Christians by this imperial volte face ‘have not been fully solved, even now, and they probably never will be’. Today we call it the problem of the sacred and the secular. 

Tn that age some saw it as a powerful bid to seduce the Christian from his discipleship of Christ. They responded to the new situation by radically rejecting a world they regarded as doomed. They withdrew to the deserts of Egypt in search of a substitute for martyrdom and by doing so they created a problem which is still with us, as those of us know who have taken part in discussions on the nature of religious life. By their action they created a new compartment of Christian life. From now on it would be virtually impossible to avoid approaching Christian living on the basis of first-class and second-class citizenship of the kingdom. Forswearing the world as doomed, they drew up a new programme for the following of Christ, and that programme had nothing to say to ‘secular’ Christians. In vain did men like St John Chrysostom protest that this programme made monks ‘the spiritual rulers of the Christian conscience’. In vain did Chrysostom appeal to the monks to come and live in cities so that they might identify their lives with those of all Christian people and thus by their example contribute to the building up of the Church. These men resolved the tension between present and future totally in favour of the future. They took one pole of the Christian vocation, namely, concern for eternity, and they arranged their lives around it. Those lives had great beauty and nobility. As Helen Waddell put it, the Desert Fathers stamped infinity on the imagination of the West. They lived simple lives and worked for their living. They had no mystical ideas about the sanctifying power of self-inflicted suffering. They got on with as little food, sleep, and conversation as possible, and they aimed at the perpetual praise of God.

Like most movements in the Church the flight to the desert produced its extremists, its lunatic fringe, men who began to concentrate on ascetic feats as an end in itself. Records were kept — so many days without food and drink, so many years without speaking. The ultimate absurdity was reached in the exploits of the Stylites who lived on pillars and were held in admiration far and wide. Whereas the early Desert Fathers had summed up their convictions by such noble remarks as “The man who has death ever before his eyes will conquer meanness of soul’, these later characters were inclined to say ludicrous things like ‘Man is the work of God down to the waist and the work of the devil below’. Not unnaturally these ascetics began to be a source of worry to bishops, since they were held in considerable honour. It was becoming very clear that there are limits to one’s rejection of the world which God created. 

This kind of asceticism reflected adversely on the goodness and sovereignty of God. It also has serious human repercussions. The whole drive towards apatheia was called in question by St Augustine, and his words have a curiously contemporary ring about them. ‘If some people … have become enamoured of themselves because they can be stimulated and excited by no emotion, moved or bent by no affection, such persons so far from gaining true tranquility simply lose all humanity.’ Here he puts his finger on the crux of the matter. The following of Christ is not a denial of humanity. On the contrary it calls for the fullest humanity. Yet in spite of this seemingly elementary truth there is a long history of its denial or at least of its neglect in some examples of Christian spirituality. There were men and women great enough to triumph over inherited ideas. On Carmelite territory it is appropriate and pleasant to remember the latest Doctor of the Church and her humanity, together with that of her confrere St. John of the Cross and their disciple St. Thérèse of Lisieux. They called the attention of the whole Church to its mystical inheritance and to the true role of asceticism in the service of the kingdom. Yet in spite of their lives and teaching much spiritual biography down to our own time persisted in treating sanctity as something evidenced by the performance of miracles and the self-infliction of extravagant penances, all of which had the effect of removing the saints from the normal human scene altogether. 

Today we are witnessing a widespread and overdue reaction to such preoccupations. The Church in Council has called us to a new attitude towards, and relationship with, the world which the Church has been commissioned to serve and in which she has the task of witnessing to Christ. That word ‘witness’ is a key to our present approach to asceticism. It is also a call back to the vision of the New Testament and the conviction of the early Church. 

Self-centredness and selfishness remain the enemy; but we are becoming increasingly aware that they manifest themselves in more subtle ways than through the enticements of sensuality. One could lead a life of strictly disciplined sensuality and still be a most un-Christ-like person, Lest [ be misunderstood, let me say once for all that I take as read our need to keep a rein on sensuality, and that if we fail to do so we are in danger of what Eusebius called spiritual flabbiness. Having said this, however, I want to turn to more serious aspects of asceticism in the contemporary world. One guiding principle which perhaps is not always sufficiently recognized is that asceticism must be tailored to situations and persons. People differ, as do the jobs they must perform. The Christian has the opportunity and grace of transforming what might be a lack-lustre performance into the dedicated service of others, That transformation calls for both prayer and asceticism brought to bear on such activities as nursing, teaching, parish visitation or the preparation of a decent sermon. If our work is governed by a sense of dedication to the needs of others, and is not merely a series of routine tasks carried out adequately but without enthusiasm, we shall find scope for asceticism in plenty. Each of us differs from the other in temperament. Some find action, meeting people, organising functions and so on, congenial; while an hour behind a book or some moments of formal prayer may be for them a much more difficult assignment. Again, there are others who may enjoy study and reflection while finding it difficult or uncongenial to meet people. Asceticism which is task-orientated and realistic about temperament will be of more use to the kingdom than any artificially contrived mortifications. 

In other words, in order to practise asceticism in a way which is profitable to the kingdom it is necessary to know ourselves. For priests and religious in particular there can be hardly any doubt that the occasion for that knowledge is prayer where we can meet Christ and ourselves at the same time and so ensure that self-knowledge does not discourage us. Asceticism has sometimes been presented as a kind of self-hatred, as if hatred of oneself could be a virtue. We should be careful in our use of the term ‘self-love’. The Lord’s command is to love others as we love ourselves. Self-acceptance, which involves a clear-sighted awareness of our qualities and talents as well as of our defects and faults, is indispensable for a joyful and fulfilling apostolate. Maturity has been loosely described as a realistic awareness of our abilities coupled with a realistic assessment of our defects. With regard to the latter, the role of asceticism must be to try to change what can be changed, and to accept what cannot. Self-acceptance may well be the hardest task of all. Or perhaps there is one harder: acceptance of our existence in the world and Church of our time. 

Let’s recall for a moment the central truth in the New Testament’s teaching on asceticism. The Christian has to follow Christ by taking up his cross daily. Christ underwent suffering and death in obedience to the Father. Sometimes pious literature has represented Jesus as seeking suffering, almost for its own sake. There is no hint of this in the gospels. He accepted without reservation, though not without repugnance, the suffering that came to him as a consequence of his preaching of the kingdom. He accepted what is for us the mysterious presence of suffering as a factor in our redemption. It was the obedience which gave the suffering its value, as the Father’s will was made clear in the unfolding events of history. Christ’s prayer was apparently a continuous meditation on the concrete historical implications of his mission. St Paul is quite explicit: God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Rom. 8:32). In a word, the Pather handed the Son over to the harsh course of ordinary human history which was shaped by the craftiness and cynicism of politicians, the brutality and violence of soldiers, and the arrogance and self-righteousness of priests. With the foreknowledge of God Jesus was tortured and murdered by men operating within the historical circumstances of Church and State in first-century Palestine. Jesus’ obedience was learned in prayer, a prayer which made clear the will of the Father as it bore upon the concrete historical events of the third decade of the first century. 

The lesson for us is clear. Jesus took up his cross from out of the historical circumstances of his time. Following him means quite simply that we must do the same. We did not ask to be born into the twentieth century nor to undergo its particular agonies.

But in it we are, and we are not free to look for our cross else-where. Prayer teaches us to look for and find the cross not where we might like to find it but where God has actually put it. The cross comes with God’s revealed will and, as Vatican II has reminded us, that will has to be sought in the ‘signs of the times’. Life in a changing Church and world is not comfortable. We have the difficult task of changing what needs to be changed and at the same time of holding on to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is quite plain that in the Church today there are some who are careless of what needs to be preserved, and there are others who are managing to ignore the call to reform and renewal. 

Both are failing to take up that cross which is specific to the age we live in. By and large, I would suggest that in Ireland we are in greater danger of the latter, of failing to respond to the demands of renewal and reform. Irresponsible radicalism is easily spotted and condemned. Irresponsible conservatism is not so easy to spot because it can be all too easily camouflaged as virtue. 

To take an illustration which I hope will not be considered too controversial, there are still many priests who are suspicious of what is loosely called ‘the new theology’. Most of the suspicion is, I believe, based on misunderstanding. Frankly I do not know what the answer is to the problem of theological updating for priests who were ordained more than ten years ago. There are no short cuts — a fact which has been discovered by those who thought that a brisk canter through Abbott’s edition of the Documents of Vatican II would do the trick. Courses can help if they lead into a serious and sustained programme of reading which many busy priests would regard as a practical impossibility. Those who have undertaken such a programme have been delighted to discover how pastorally orientated modern theology has become. Much of the freshness and sense of discovery comes from the realisation that Aristotle and Plato were not among the twelve apostles and that biblical theology is a good deal more preachable than scholasticism. I mention this matter in the context of asceticism because I know how difficult a return to study can be for those who have got out of touch. 

I have two more points to make before I close. The first is about the relationship between faith and asceticism. I had almost decided to omit this question because it is really too large for brief treatment; but no consideration about prayer and asceticism would be complete without it. Belief today is one of our major crosses, and theological upheaval is only the reflection of a deeper problem. We easily come to think of faith as the acceptance of God’s existence. Christian faith is a great deal more than that. It is the recognition that God is speaking, addressing us, calling us to wrestle with his word to us as we try to make it bear on the world we live in. Faith has never been easy, but it is particularly difficult today; and no good can come of pretending to ourselves or to others that this is not so. 

A serious obligation lies on the shoulders of us priests and religious in this matter. We have to see to it that our preaching and teaching does not unwittingly promote unbelief by our failure to deal with the questions that people are asking. We have obligations, serious obligations, towards those members of our congregations and classes who are asking searching questions. To regard such questions as an attack on the Church’s authority would be a serious misreading of the situation. These questions go far deeper than that. We can, of course, continue to preach only to those of untroubled faith. It will save us a lot of trouble. This is precisely where asceticism comes in; for we may unconsciously suspect that attending to the unbelief of others will stir up in our own hearts and minds an answering chord of unbelief from which we intuitively shy away. The fact may well be that we do not really want to face the possibility that belief, real belief, involves a lot more than the acceptance of a list of doctrines. It is possible to accept the Church’s teaching as one would the membership rules of a club, but this would not be faith. Such an attitude could even protect us from the askésis of real faith. Indeed our temptation may be to try to ‘protect’ our faith by avoiding the questions which life today poses for faith. If we do this, we are like the man in the parable who buried the talent in the ground until the Lord’s return and earned for himself one of Christ’s sternest rebukes. Our faith is given not to be locked away from prying eyes but to be put into circulation for the good of all God’s people. We are not free to contract out of the struggle for relevance, precisely because we are ambassadors for Christ who makes his appeal through us. It is not permissible for us to hoard our own faith while glumly reflecting on the decline of faith in the world at large and moralising about the permissive society. Our commission is, after all, to go to that world and preach Christ crucified with joy and enthusiasm. Faith is the joyful denial of atheism. 

It may seem, at first sight, strange to speak of preaching and teaching religion in the context of asceticism; but there is growing evidence for the need to do just that. Headmasters and head-mistresses report that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people, including priests, brothers, and nuns, willing to take religion periods. While in ordinary parish life many priests find preaching the most exacting and least gratifying of their priestly activities. I am not speaking about the bother of preparing a sermon or class, or of the fact that we feel we are not effective public speakers. It is something far deeper altogether, and I submit that it can be met only by an asceticism which goes to the roots of our being as believers. We priests are perhaps slower than other members of the Church to admit the possibility of a resistance to preaching and hearing the word of God, a resistance to be found in ourselves as well as in others; a resistance more deep-seated than any mere sense of inconvenience or sloth. We may regret the passing of an age which took faith and religion without question because it left all the thinking to the clergy. We may secretly resent the fact that our people no longer take what we say uncritically. Those who teach religion in schools already have a fair idea of how things are shaping. The situation at present developing in Ireland is unique in this respect. We are a believing people passing quite suddenly from an easy-going acceptance of life, including religion, into the fast-moving technological and electronic age. The challenges before us are enormous. Complacency, or living off the spiritual capital of the past, could mean the frittering away of the spiritual reserves left to us by our ancestors. What a tragedy it would be if we began to take reform and renewal seriously only after we had noticed a serious decline in religious practice among our people. 

The questions our people are beginning to ask are too far-reaching to be met by stern appeals to authority. The real problems are not about the finer points of dogma but about something much more fundamental — man’s relationship with God. 

Owing to many of the cultural features of our age it is becoming ever more common to experience a sense of the absence of God. The more seriously one takes faith and religion the more painful this experience is. It is as if God were trying to purify our faith by a sort of corporate dark night caused by a withdrawal of the sense of his presence, at least of the sort of presence that former ages were able to experience. Indeed it can bring prayer and asceticism into a close relationship, but in a radically different way from the sort of relationship between the two which I excluded at the start of this paper. This testing experience has been traditionally treated as belonging to the further reaches of mystical prayer, not to be referred to Christians still wearing their L-plates. Though I have no time left to substantiate this thesis, I submit that something analogous to the dark night is becoming a feature of Christian faith today and that we are being led by the Spirit towards a deeper and purer idea of the mystery of God and the expression of that mystery in the mystery of Christ as it bears upon history and our daily lives. 

My last point arises out of Paul’s first letter to the Christians of Corinth. Christ ‘must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15: 25-26). Death, the last enemy, the sign of contradiction, the source of man’s deepest fears and of his most hidden resentment, is the occasion for the Christian’s last and most critical acts of faith, hope and love. This is the moment towards which all asceticism is directed. This is where we meet the risen Christ, the second Adam who has robbed death of its sting, of its power to hurt or frighten. This is where we strengthen ourselves with the reflection that he has been through it all and has come back along the road to assure us that everything will be well, that we have simply to trust in the power and love of God as we embark on the greatest adventure of all, in which the seed finally dies in order to become the harvest of eternity. 

Continue reading “Prayer and Asceticism”
The Mothers of the Desert

The Mothers of the Desert

Desert Mothers

At the dawn of monastic life, in the Middle Eastern and African deserts, not only men sought the solitude and entered the desert, there were also women of extraordinary pre-eminence called the Mothers of the desert. John Chrysostom (344-407), a monk in his youth and later bishop of Constantinople, a great preacher, so tells the virgins whom he met in the Egyptian deserts:

The women here have no less philosophy and vigour than the men: vigour not to handle the shield or to ride, as the most severe Greek legislators and philosophers would like, but to participate in a much more bitter and harsher battles. With the men they battle a common enemy, a war against the devil and the powers of darkness. The fragility of their gender is in no way an impediment to these battles. These struggles do not require a strength of body, but the good will of the soul. Therefore, very often, in this kind of warfare, women have been seen to fight with greater courage and generosity than the men and therefore they win the most glorious of victories”

Among the Mothers of the desert we must remember the noblewoman Syncletica of Alexandria in Egypt, who renounced a wealth inheritance to live in a crypt with her blind sister, and Theodora, wife of a Prefect and the Roman Governor of Egypt, who in order to perform penance for a sin she committed, she disguised herself as a man and joined a monastery in Thebaid. Her true identity as a woman was not discovered until after her death.

Amma Syncletica

Of Syncletica we remember a thought that is often and willingly repeated in monasteries even today:“Obedience is preferable to asceticism, the one teaches pride the other humility”.

While for those who teach, we recall a thought by Theodora: “A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him with flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible, he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls” (from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ Theodora 5).

Notable Examples

The Desert Mothers were known as ammas (“spiritual mothers”), comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), due to the respect they had earned as spiritual teachers and directors. One of the most famous Mothers of the Desert was Saint Syncletica, who had 27 sayings attributed among the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Sarah of the Desert, also had sayings in that book. The Desert Mothers described in The Lausiac History compiled by Palladius of Galatia include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympia The Deaconess of Nicomedia, Paula of Rome and her daughter Eustochium Julia, and several other women whose names the author does not mention.

According to written sources, St. Syncletica may have been born around AD 270, as it is said that she came to be around eighty in AD 350, with wealthy parents in Alexandria and that she was well educated, including a study of the Father’s of the Desert in the writings of the Evagrius Pontus. After her parents died, she sold everything she had and gave the proceeds to the poor. After leaving the city with her blind sister, she lived as a hermit among the graves outside Alexandria. Gradually a community of ascetic women grew up around her, and she became their spiritual mother. Although she was an ascetic and a hermit, she Syncletica teaches moderation, and that asceticism is not an end in itself.

Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Before that, she had escaped into the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. She was in great demand by the Desert Fathers for her advice from her – even Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria sought her out for advice.

The sayings of Sarah of the Desert indicate that she was a hermit who lived near a river for sixty years. Her sharp responses to some old men who challenged her show her strong personality. According to one story, two anchorites visited her in the desert, with the intention of humiliating her. They told her “Be careful not to get a presumptuous thinking of yourself:” Look how the anchorites come to find me, who am only a woman. She replied “By nature I am a woman, but not by my thoughts.”

Melania the Elder, daughter of a Roman officer, became a widow at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Wadi El Natrun Desert. She met with several Desert Fathers, followed them on their travels and provided for them with her money. At one point she was thrown into prison for helping them, after several Fathers had been banished by Roman officers in Palestine. Later she founded a convent in Jerusalem with about fifty nuns. Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, married at thirteen and had two children, both of whom died young. At the age of twenty, she and her husband Valerius Pinianus (Pinian) renounced the world.  In 417, the couple moved to Palestine founding convents and monasteries.

Women were quite prominent in the desert tradition, although early accounts left them unnamed. There is no distinction between the sayings of the male Abbas and those of Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletica. One text refers to Theodora, who had monks who listened to her advice and asked her questions. Some women turned their homes into religious structures where there were social-religious groups with men and women. Women could not be ordained deacons or priests.


Amma Sarah said “If I prayed to God for everyone to approve my conduct, I would find myself penitent at everyone’s door, but I’d rather pray that my heart will always remain pure.”

Amma Syncletica said “In the beginning there are many great battles and a fair amount of suffering for those who move towards God and then, ineffable joy. It is like those who hope to start a fire; at first they cough from the smoke and cry, and with that they get what they want … we must therefore kindle the divine fire within ourselves through tears and hard work.”

Amma Syncletica said “There are many people who live in the mountains and act as if they are in the city; they waste their time. It is possible to be lonely in the mind living in the crowd and it is possible for those who are lonely to live in the crowd of their thoughts.”

Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor wakefulness, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do this. There was a hermit who was capable of casting out demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Fasting?” They replied: “We don’t eat or drink.” “Is it the wake?” They replied, “We don’t sleep.” “So what power takes you away?” They replied, “Nothing can overwhelm us, only humility.” Amma Theodora said: “Do you see how humility wins against demons?”

Image: Saint Syncletica of Alexandria depicted in the Menologion of Basil II.

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Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Their influence is still present in the Church today and also in popular culture.

In the third century, thousands of Desert Fathers abandoned the cities on the Nile to seek out the paneremos – or inner desert.

At the end of the third century, a Christian named Paul the First Hermit (ca. 226 – ca. † 341), who lived in the city of Thebes, Egypt, was forced to flee into the desert (around AD 250) during the persecution of the Roman emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius (ca. 201 – † June 251) he was 24 years old. He remained and lived in a desert cave near a clear spring and a palm tree awaiting for an end to Decius’ persecution.

In the intervening period, Paul the First Hermit found that he actually enjoyed the solitude and freedom to fast and pray. He embraced this form of life in the desert and lived in that cave for many more decades as a hermit, dedicated to the worship of God.

Near the end of Saint Paul’s life, another man in Egypt, Antony (251 – † 356), received inspiration from the Gospel to renounce his possessions and serve God alone.

A radical change

His experience is recounted in the famous book Life of Antony, written by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 20 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. During a Mass service the pastor had read Matthew 19:21 which ingrained itself in his mind. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow Matthew’s gospel exhortation “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor.

Antony believed that the words were addressed directly to him, so immediately after Mass, he sold all of his possessions and tried to do God’s will.

Around this time, Antony heard about Paul the first hermit and went to visit him at his retreat in the mountains. Antony was deeply inspired by Paul’s way of life and was convinced that God was also calling him to become a hermit in the desert.

Antony dedicated the rest of his life to fasting and praying, to live a life of poverty for the glory of God.

His holiness became famous, and during Diocletian’s persecution, Christians were drawn to the desert as a way to escape the world and live a private Christian life.

“Contagious” lifestyle

Antony’s life and wisdom has inspired thousands of men and women for the last 50 generations to renounce their earthly ambitions and live in solitude, worshiping God alone.

Monasteries eventually developed over time and spread throughout Egypt. A pattern of life was established and other holy men and women heard the call to enter the desert.

Names that have impacted history

Among the first saints who developed this way of life and are considered part of the Desert Fathers are Saint Pachomius († 348), Saint Menas of Egypt († ca. 309), Saint Basil of Caesarea († 379), Saint Macarius of Egypt († 391) and Saint Moses the Ethiopian († 405).

Among those who were notably influenced by this early asceticism are Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom († 407), Saint Hilarion († 371), and Saint John Cassian († 435).

On AD 516, Saint Benedict of Nursia developed his own monastic rule based on the writings of these ancient Desert Fathers. As a result, modern religious orders can trace their spiritual ancestry all the way back to the first hermits in Egypt.

Saint John Cassian was one of those responsible for bringing the wisdom of the Desert Fathers to Europe and it was then that their influence reached the Celtic Christians in Ireland.

It was in the mid V century that an Irish version of desert asceticism began to develop, based essentially on the writings of Cassian and the example of Saint Antony the Great.

It was this same desert asceticism that influenced the VI century monks to sail to the remote Isle of Sceilg Mhichíl—Skellig Michael, establishing a monastery of ‘hive huts’ which came to life again in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

A timeless wisdom

Although most Christians may not be familiar with the writings of the Desert Fathers, their influence can be felt throughout the world. They call us to a radical way of living Christianity that includes fasting, penance and silence. (Download a free copy of the “anonymous sayings of the Desert Fathers” by John Wortley).

In a world full of worldly temptations and full of noise, the Desert Fathers are the guiding light which calls us to live differently.

Although our vocation is not to renounce all of our possessions and live in the desert, the Desert Fathers challenge us to make our own daily sacrifices, to live more simply, and to spend time each day in prayer and silence.

Pray for our fathers and our brethren who are traveling, or those who intend to travel anywhere, that God may straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, that Christ our God may bring them back to their own homes in peace, and forgive us our sins.

And those who intend to travel anywhere, straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, everyone anywhere. Lead them into a haven of calm, a haven of safety. Graciously accompany them in their departure and be their companion in their travel. Bring them back to their own, rejoicing with joy and safe in security. In work, be a partner with Your servants in every good deed. As for us, O Lord, keep our sojourn in this life without harm, without storm, and undisturbed to the end. Amen.

The Litany for the Travelers — أوشية المسافرين

5 sayings of the Desert Fathers to grow spiritually

Desert Fathers

These IV century monks can still teach us a lot today

Although the Desert Fathers lived in the IV century, their lives and writings remain an inspiration even to today’s world.

Many of his sayings (or apothegms or sentences) were compiled in a work entitled The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (The Apophthegmata Patrum), although the title may vary according to the edition. This work, from the V century, represents a small sample of the Desert Fathers and Mothers profound spiritual wisdom. It presents an immense treasure of small phrases with enormous spiritual power.

Here are five examples of these apothegms to help you maintain a good spirit.

Abba Poemen said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.” (SDF Poemen 25)

Said abba Antony: “I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning ‘what can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me ‘humility.’ (SDF Antony 7)

Abba Poemen said: “If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion up in a bottle, in time they will completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through patience.” (SDF Poemen 21)

Abba Amoún from Nitria visited abba Antony and said to him: “Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?” Abba Antony answered: “it is because I love God more than you.” (SDF Amoun of Nitria 1)

Saint Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus said: “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” (SDF Epiphanius 8)

Continue reading “Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?”
The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus

The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus

it seems good to call this present work a Meadow, for the delight, comfort and usefulness which those who read may take from it. It is not only right belief and meditation on divine truth which lead to a life and morals of integrity, but also the examples of other people, and written accounts of their virtuous lives. Therefore I have undertaken this task trusting in the Lord, beloved son, and hoping that it will commend itself to your charity… Continue reading The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus