We live in a noisy world. It is a world that would attempt to distract us with the baubles of material goods and acquisitions, and fill our minds and lives with busy activity. We live our lives with ear buds pouring sound in our ears, phones and computers dinging with constant notifications, screens jumping with frenetic images.
It can be hard to hear the still small voice of the Spirit in all of this. And this is where the Ascetic Pathway provides a needed space, a space of simplicity and solitude. The Ascetic worshipper finds the presence of God magnified in silence, in barren places, in austerity, in discipline—in shutting out the vain noise and notions of this world.
Biblical Ascetics seem often to have dwelt in the desert, a place of solitude and privation. Think of John the Baptist, with his simple diet and rough clothes, living in the wasteland beyond the Jordan. Think of Paul’s years in the Arabian Desert after his Damascus road experience, preparing for the celibate ministry to which he had been called. Think of Jesus, fasting for forty days and nights in the wilderness in imitation of his prophetic predecessors Moses and Elijah, and his frequent prayer retreats to solitary places.
Classical monasticism grew out of people copying these examples: the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt, the Irish monks in their cells, orders such as the Benedictines and Franciscans. However, the old monasticism was only for a few super-spiritual celibate saints; lay people and the married were excluded. And in many places it became corrupted by the same tendencies it had been founded to combat.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to his brother in 1935, wrote: “The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…” This challenge has been taken up by a new generation of people that see in this “new monasticism,” available to all believers, a way to restore disciplines of spiritual formation easily destroyed by our materialistic, frenetic world. (One such movement we have become involved with is the Northumbria Community.)
Ours is not a culture much given to simplicity or discipline. Gary Thomas in Sacred Pathways observes, “We gravitate toward the trite and trivial rather than the sombre and grave, and we pride ourselves on adornment and complexity rather than simplicity, often because many of us are trying desperately to hide our true selves. Ascetics, perhaps more than any of the other spiritual temperaments, must truly go against their culture to practice loving God.”
Here are some of the countercultural practices of Ascetic worshippers:
- Solitude in a world of frenetic social contact. Nowadays, you can barely go any place without being tethered to social media and available to talk. But Ascetics know that in silence and seclusion, the Spirit’s whispers become magnified. They sense that alone before God, they can focus on him exclusively and be known by him as they truly are. Sometimes this involves a withdrawal from other people, as on a silent retreat. Other times it might mean vigilance in the naturally silent night, seeking God’s presence in the darkness. Some Ascetics may also, like Paul, choose to remain unmarried in order to focus on God and his mission for their lives (see 1 Corinthians 7 for Paul’s description of the freedom he found in this choice).
- Austerity in a world of noisy materialism. Many of us surround ourselves with stuff and build walls of sound against silence. But Ascetics seek to avoid the distractions that come with too much stuff and too much stimulation. They may lead quite simple lives, favoring spartan living spaces, plain food, and few possessions—sometimes even choosing real poverty. Also, in contrast with Sensate worshippers, they may shut out sensory stimulation by seeking environments characterized by visual and auditory stillness.
- Discipline in a laissez-faire world. While the world celebrates “doing your own thing” and “following your feelings,” Ascetics seek to cultivate practices of strictness that remind them that they belong to God and not to themselves. In fact, the word “ascetic” comes from the Greek askesis, meaning practice, training, or exercise. This might be through something like a prayer regimen: for example, extended prayer early each morning, or following the “Daily Office” at set hours. (Here is an example of the Daily Office, from the Northumbria Community’s site.) It might also be through fasting, whether from food or other things, as a sign that God is the author of all we really need. (Have a look at two posts I wrote about Fasting to think more about this: Fasting and the Spiritual Dimension of Food and The Spiritual Dimension of Food-Part 2.) The discipline of work is another among many more.
In my last blog in this series, I mentioned that the Sensate Pathway was one of my main ways to connect to God. Knowing of my high propensity for input, you may not be surprised to find that the Ascetic Pathway has always been one of my weakest. Put me alone in a dark, silent room for even ten minutes, and I am going to be far more distracted than devotional. And yet, over the past several years, I have begun to appreciate aspects of Asceticism. Sometimes this has come from experience and study, as with my theological exploration of fasting, and practicing the Daily Office. Other times from getting to know my Ascetic friends more deeply, as with our companions in Northumbria. This, I think, is the advantage of exploring all of these Pathways, and not just the ones we prefer.