Archimandrite Cyril Kostopoulos
We all know that to the question "to whom belongs the work of asceticism?" the response is as follows: "To ascetics." However, can such an answer be justified by Orthodox Theology?
To answer the above question truthfully, we need to consider the fall of the first man, the grief of the fall, and the endless existential joy of the Resurrection. Asceticism is essentially experiencing and overcoming this grief with the light of the hope of the Resurrection.
Fasting, affliction, prayer, participating in the sacramental life of our Church, and generally all deprivations and tribulations in the life of a pious member of our Church is asceticism with an eschatological meaning.
This is because the journey of asceticism takes us in the opposite direction of the fall. Through asceticism the eros for the world and sins are converted into eros for God. Basil the Great says: "The asceticism of a pious soul nourishes divine thoughts" (PG 32, 225C-D).
When a faithful Christian avoids food and comfort, which produce insensitivity, hardness of the heart and callousness, they enter into the realm of ecclesiastical asceticism, which purifies the heart and leads them into communion with God their Creator and their fellow human beings.
How comforting this sounds in the current state of deprivation and poverty!
The material body participates in ones sanctification. For this reason asceticism restores us to what we have been called to, namely to become a purified image of God.
We need to understand that asceticism is an ecclesiastical and not an individual practice. Through it individual existence is altered into a personal event of communion with God and with our fellow human beings. For example, ecclesiastical fasting alters our instinctive need for food, our ravenous hunger for individualistic self-preservation, and subordinates it to the common will and purpose of the Orthodox Church to obey the will of God and society.
However, it should be stressed that an Orthodox Christian does not fast to destroy the body - which is why the rules of fasting state that we should not fast "when sick" (Apostolic Canon 62) - nor because we accept the view of "clean" and "unclean" foods. We fast because through this exercise we stop the individual intake of food and we alter our obedience to the common will and common practice of the Church. However, this obedience to the Church is absolutely voluntary. Therefore, it is always an act of communion. By this obedience society lovingly and voluntarily communes with their Creator God.
According to the aforementioned example of fasting we could talk about other forms of ecclesiastical asceticism. For example, the temperance of sexual desire, participation in prayer, prostrations, all of which were established by the monastic tradition, including acts of obedience, the refusal of our individual will, acts of philanthropy, participating in the Divine Mysteries, etc. All these ascetic acts are forms of the resistance to our egocentric individuality, particularly of people today. They are forms of a struggle to overcome our biological nature, which contradicts our spiritual nature. As a result we are able, with these ecclesiastical exercises, to complete our communion with God and our fellow human beings.
In conclusion, we must emphasize that asceticism does not constitute a deprivation of the good things of life, hostility to the body or a disdain towards matter, as some worshipers of the flesh maintain. Asceticism is the journey of a struggling believer towards their personal fulfillment of restoring their pre-fallen beauty, a fall which tarnished the image of God, which is man.
Source: From the newspaper Πελοπόννησος, 4/9/2014. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.