The Paradox of Ecclesial Asceticism

by His Grace Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic)

Byzantine Expressionism

The counsels of a twentieth-century spiritual father to the modern human being can be summed up in three core philosophies—do not despair, do not be sentimental, and do not force yourself to anything. This advice leads to the discovery of an authentic person through a triune experience of delight, realism and freedom. But it is difficult, more difficult than we might realize, as it manifests the nature of the two poles—or, better—the antinomy of ecclesial asceticism.

The antinomy of ecclesial asceticism requires a break from established tastes or puritanism. It requires an acceptance of the other, no matter how different. It requires that we take no notice during a musical performance when the pianist played a wrong note, or when we are not annoyed that a priest used the wrong exclamation at the end of a litany. Further, it requires that we are glad that we can forgive ourselves and others for abandoning a “principle,” or that we are not overly troubled when our instincts betray us. Only then we can we gain a different kind of knowledge and aesthetics.

Indeed, true contemplation and true perception of beauty come only when selfish interests are abandoned. Aesthetic insight cannot know what may lay ahead on this creative journey. Stephen Zweig felt this beautifully when he wrote The Secret of Artistic Creation, so much so, he noted, that “the only thing we can do is to reconstruct this act once it has taken place and even then it is possible to do so only to a certain extent.” Of course, one should not be enamored with human achievements, the glory and triumph of civilization, especially because “the time has been made short… and those who make use of the cosmos might be like those who do not exploit it; for the shape (τὸ σχῆμα) of the cosmos is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29, 31).

What is stopping us from experiencing a familiar passage for the Bible, an intelligent theological or philosophical text, or a remarkable musical oeuvre in a way that can take us to new and unexplored territories? Is it because of our distracted mind? Or numbed senses?

Perhaps it is both, together with our attachment to this world and the things of the world. Our pretense and self-deception also impede us. We often use elaborate tricks to show that we are able to do more than we can or know how to do. We want to prove that the other person is wrong, so we develop sophisticated arguments. We strive to persuade others of our love so much that we suffocate them. These are examples of constraints imposed by an egoistic desire to make others happy by forcing our vision of life on them, instead of extracting the best from what life has to offer.

If we do not understand the antinomy of ecclesial asceticism, then we are not ready to commend the wonderful ability of others to shed light on the most complex theological truths-concepts to people either inside or outside the Church. In such a state, we are envious because we are not free and do not love. Underneath our polished exterior, there hides no spirit of an apostolic journey of discovery and adventure in the Holy Spirit.

If, while continuing our ascetic practices, nonetheless, we give up the rigid imperatives, we might still be strengthened in the knowledge of the “gift.” The graceful intrusion into this side of heaven through a fissure in the sky renders a harsh reality transparent to perception, thereby providing us a glimpse of the Creator and His love. That is the moment when we acknowledge to God that He is unrelentingly merciful. A barely literate Russian peasant and ardent ascetic named Silouan prayed long and with tearful cries, “Lord have mercy on me!” He felt as if God had forsaken him. His disciple Sophrony Sakharov, a famous ascetic, aesthete and teacher of the principle of “hypostatic prayer,” in a modern hagiographic piece describes how Silouan, after many months of prayer whereby his strength was exhausted, lost heart and cried out, “You are implacable!”

“When, at these words something foundered in his soul, grown weak from despair, he suddenly beheld the living Christ in the Divine light. His heart and body were filled with fire of such force that had the vision continued for another instant, he would have died. Afterwards he was never to forget the inexpressibly gentle, infinitely loving, joyous gaze of Christ full of peace; and during the long years of his life that were to follow he tirelessly bore witness that God is love, love immeasurable, love incomprehensible.”

It happened in the church, during the Vespers service. In this description, we do not encounter the typical “synergy.” Seeking the Lord should not be misconstrued to imply the quest for some instant gratification that employs the reciprocity relation (I do something then you do something in return, and so on). On the contrary, there is an “inherent antinomy in true ascesis,” as Fr. Georges Florovsky lucidly remarked, since the grain of wheat cannot bear fruit unless it dies (cf. John 12:24). Elder Sophrony of Essex, with his highly-refined psychological sense and the outstanding skill of portraying people, depicts a monk who experienced the ineffable sweetness of divine love—as well as demonic assaults—and who, in his search for God, did not allow despair to rule his heart (keep your mind in hell, but know you are not forsaken by God). This saving message is a covenant for our generation and generations to come.

Bearing this in mind, it is both naive and unfortunate that some would suppress theological points of view. And our time is unique in this respect. At one time, the young hieromonk Nicholai Velimirović enthusiastically believed in the idea of pan-humanism and the concept of “All-man,” he admired some “Hindu ideas,” but there existed no official “censors” appointed to sanction him (either by name-calling or denying him any blessing). It is interesting that no one at the time was so short-sighted as to censor this young theologian. Indeed, overly stringent theological censorship did not exist; the general climate was one that focused on the task-goal (σκοπός) to bring other peoples and faiths to Christ’s fold by baptism (divinization, transfiguration) of cultural patterns. Nicholai’s bold statements and unorthodox digressions were, instead, interpreted as a mild paraphony rather than a slip into heresy. (Nicholai’s παραφωνία, paraphony, was, musically speaking, a sound that was not in harmony with the other tones, but still contributed to the melodic unity).

Today, even the most well-meaning proposals for how to bring Christ to non-Christians are considered heretical. This is because the self-professed guardians of Orthodoxy have lost the blessed antinomy of ecclesial asceticism.

His Grace Maxim (Vasiljevic) is bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America. 

Translation from Serbian by Teodora Gita Simic.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.