On Asceticism and Stillness

Okay, I’ll be honest. This guy sounds a lot like the last one. I’m on two of I’m-scared-to-count and if this is some foreshadowing of future sections I’m going to have to do some very deep digging and pair it with some real creativity to keep you here. But! Turns out this guy is just as gold as the last one. I’m reading this section from Evagrios the Solitary, apparently not a saint and never even a priest but he was in attendance at the Council of Constantinople (381) which was kind of big deal if you don’t know. It validated the Trinitarian Doctrine where we could all officially agree that the Holy Spirit was on par with God and the Son. It also put out the Nicene Creed, lots going on there at the Second Ecumenical Council. 

I’ve got to hand it to him though, he is forward thinking and says some brazen things like not getting “caught up in concern for your parents or relatives” lest they rob you of the stillness. Or how being married means you’ll be too worried about pleasuring your wife which equates to you worrying too much about those damnable “worldly thoughts and desires”. Is this perhaps the first ever dude whose friends, if he had any, gave him the “savage” comment? But get this – he says “if you find yourself growing too strongly attached to your cell, leave it, do not cling to it”! Now, listen, I know he’s not talking about cell phones but how apropos is that? I told you he was forward thinking! In all seriousness though, these are the thoughts, from many centuries ago, that can change our lives if we let them. Plenty has been said about the damage those little beasts of technology in our pocket so I’ll leave it at that but reading the cell comment surely gave me great pause, and laughter. 

Before I get into the meat can we take a moment to appreciate glossaries? This book has one and while I’ve seen most of these tricky words before it’s so nice to go to the back and get a good handle. Can we also take a moment to be angry about the fact that “asceticism” isn’t in it! If ever there was a word to add to the glossary of a book I would think ‘asceticism” in The Philokalia would be it. But, no. For those of us still grappling with the word think monasticismwhen you read it. It is essentially a denying of the self, a denying of bodily, worldly pleasures (even necessary ones like eating) to the end of finding closeness with God, particularlybecausethose indulgences are believed to be the wedges the divide one from living out God’s will. In a sense, the whole of the Philokalia series is about asceticism so we might as well get defining terminology out of the way. 

So, after that long-winded introduction, let’s see what Evagrios has to say. Extreme statements about marriage notwithstanding, he raises some brilliant points that can be applied to current twenty-first century living. He breaks down “achieving a life of stillness” first addressing food and hospitality, and clothes. Referencing Matthew 6:33 is a weak spot of mine so I bought in the moment I read him framing all this within the be-anxious-for-nothing context, even though that’s Philippians – same idea. What’s being said is so simple. “Be content.” With regard to clothes he reminds us that we will be provided for. Same goes for food. “Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking variety of tempting dishes.” Yikes, sounds drab. But here’s an interesting point he makes, that hospitality is not about impressing ones guests, nor leaving them feeling grateful for a full belly of good food and conversation. Instead, he says it is about “making them feel welcome and saying something helpful”. How many of us think of hospitality as truly offering help to our guests and making them feel like they can come as they are. Don’t come with a bottle of wine, or your cute outfit, or your stories of your latest. Come exactly as you are in all your sorrow and failures and shortcomings and with little to offer me, and I will welcome you, and I will love you. 

There is this pesky element of keeping up with the Joneses in hospitality these days, too. I am so guilty of frantically cleaning, prepping, tidying, and redecorating before guests arrive. Why? Because I care about what they think of me more than I care about being good to them. Because I want them to be impressed by me. I want them to like me, or worse yet I want them to want to be like me. Ugh, what an admission. Talk about being “robbed of stillness”. I am very much getting caught up in being “materially minded and involved in worldly affairs”. Fleeting affairs that are of no consequence to my soul, albeit negative ones. It’s quite easy in this world to allow ourselves to consume and acquire to no real end. Are we not content with the full and unconditional love of Christ? 

This is where Matthew so perfectly says:

            “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil no spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith? Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, “what shall we eat?” or “what shall we drink?” or “what shall we wear?”. For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these thing will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Matthew 6:25-34

Mic drop. 

Seriously folks, is there really anything left to say after that? At least on that topic. 

Moving on, he also warns against “gathering wealth for giving to the poor”. Dave Ramsey might not be this guys biggest fan as he always says to acquire wealth ”so you can live and give like no one else”. Hard to argue with that. Why should our desire to be as generous as possible stop us from amassing large amounts of wealth? Perhaps because that’s not all there is to it. By way of making that money we put ourselves in some spiritually precarious positions, do we not? With so much money do we become seduced by things, by acquisition, by living extravagantly? Humility is harder and harder to come by the more and more we have. In seeking peace with money Evagrios finally says “do not haggle about the price from love of gain, and so indulge in actions harmful to the soul – quarrelling, lying, shifting your ground and so on – thus bringing our way of life into disrepute.” Guilty as charged yet again. I need to just leave a bigger tip next time, it’s not that big of a deal. Those five or so dollars were not bringing me any more joy I can promise you that. 

As this has become a longer post I’ll bring up two last points. Steadiness. Using a wine metaphor (is there anything wine can’t do?), he tells us to “stay in the same place and you will find how greatly this benefits you”. There is indeed something so peaceful about the unchanging. Sure we should embrace growth and improvement and new opportunities and so forth, but seeking change for the sake of change is unsteady. Seek reliability. Boredom is never a good excuse in my opinion. I did hear a compelling argument once about the correlation between boredom and stupidity. Being bored could really be the fault of the person who isn’t looking deeply and hard enough at something. 

 And, lastly, when we begin to struggle with asceticism and choosing a “more” still life (I’m thinking intervals here as no one is suggesting Monasticism), Evagrios asked us to think ahead. The ancient thought to the modern adage about discipline being that we not give up what we want most for what we want now. “Picture all the blessings that await the righteous: intimate communion with God the Father…the gladness and the joy.” We do live in an instant gratification society where we rarely, if at all, “call to mind what is even now going on in hell, thinking of the suffering, the bitter silence, the terrible moaning, the great fear and agony, the dread of what is to come, the unceasing pain, the endless weeping”. Pray, and remember that day you will stand before God and “imagine that fearful and awesome judgement-seat”. Awesome judgement? Who is this? That is most certainly not how I view judgement but okay, whatever you say man-who-lived-in-4th-century. He did entirely nail it though, when he said, “for the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us”. That’s for damn sure.