The Ascetic Corrective
By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Lecture at the Ustein Monastery, Norway in 2003
This session marks the opening of the Sailing Seminar on the North Sea. It takes place within the walls of a strategically-placed monastery at the entrance of the magnificent and unique Ryfylke fjords, where the marine traffic along this coast was once controlled. Inhabited as an island from as early as the Bronze Age, it has been a special haven for monks of the Augustinian Order since the Middle Ages. This monastic setting surely provides for us an ideal opportunity to assess the importance and impact of the phenomenon and experience of monasticism in general for the ecological balance of our world.
At the conclusion of the service for the tonsure of an Orthodox monk or nun, the newly-received member of the monastic brotherhood or convent stands before the entire community bearing three simple tokens: a cross, a candle and a prayer-rope. The first two symbols – the cross and the candle – standing as we are today in this historic and royal monastery of Utstein, are a powerful reminder of the ecological corrective offered by the monastic way of life. The monk and the nun, representative of all the Christian faithful, and indeed of the whole world, are an image of the spirit of asceticism or self-restraint and of a light that illumines and protects the world in the face of every form of spiritual darkness.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes:
"Through Him [Christ], God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (1:20).
Reference here to "the blood of the cross" is a clear indication of the cost involved in any efforts that we may undertake to address environmental problems of our time. The cross is the singular, ultimate and absolute solution to the ecological crisis. The cross reminds us of the reality of human failure and of the need for a cosmic repentance. In order to alter our attitudes and lifestyles, what is required is nothing less than a radical reversal of our perspectives and practices. There is a price to pay for our wasting. It is the cost of self-discipline.
This is the sacrifice of bearing the cross. The environmental crisis will not be solved simply by sentimental expressions of regret or aesthetic formulations of a creative imagination. It will not be altered by fashionable programs or ecumenical catch-words. It is the "tree of the cross" that reveals to us the way out of our ecological impasse by proposing the solution of self-denial, the denial of selfishness or self-centeredness. It is, therefore, the spirit of asceticism that in the final analysis leads to the spirit of gratitude and love, to a rediscovery of the sense of wonder and beauty.
In this context, we would define asceticism as the possibility of traveling lightly, of using and consuming less. And we can always manage with much less than we imagine. We are to learn to relinquish our desire to possess and control. We must stop wounding the natural resources of this earth and learn to live simply, no longer competing against one another and against nature for our survival. What is called for is a softening up in our relations toward each other and toward nature. We must learn to make our communities more sensitive and to render our behavior toward nature more respectful. This means acquiring a merciful attitude, a compassionate heart. Such a heart cannot bear to deplete – still less to destroy – the earth that we inhabit and share. In the seventh century, St. Isaac of Syria defined this as:
"Having a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation: for humans, for birds, for beasts, even for demons – for all God's creatures."
Asceticism, then, aims at a sense of refinement, not at any form of detachment or destruction. Its goal is always moderation, never repression. The content of asceticism is positive, not negative. It looks to service and not selfishness, to reconciliation and not renunciation or escape. Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human. Without asceticism, none of us can hope to heal our broken environment.
The general impression that people in western societies have of asceticism is negative. Asceticism carries with it the baggage of dualism and denial, developed over many centuries, both inside and outside the Christian Church. This is why so many people have misunderstood and even dismissed monasticism. Yet this is not the vision of wholeness that Orthodox spirituality proposes through its ascetic dimension. The sacramental dimension of the world is so intimately and so profoundly linked with the ascetic dimension. Asceticism is the conscious awareness and deeper recognition that humanity is dependent not only on God, but also on the world, and indeed on the food chain, just like every other creature made by God.
Such asceticism, however, requires from us a voluntary restraint, in order for us to live in harmony with our environment. Asceticism offers practical examples of conservation. By reducing our consumption – what in Orthodox theology we call enkrateia or self-control – we come to ensure that sufficient resources are also left for others in the world to share and enjoy. As we shift our will and focus of concern, we shall be able to demonstrate a compassion for the poorer nations of our world. Our abundance of resources should also be extended – beyond ourselves and our own – to include an abundance of equitable concern for others.
This further implies that humanity is not to act as the tyrannical overlord but as a servant and minister, who kneels in prayer for the preservation and progress of creation. In this way, humanity is able to restore harmony with the rest of the world, as well as to reconcile all people and all things with God. This responsibility or obligation underlines the priestly dimension of the human vocation. Human beings are called to be priests and not proprietors of nature. Humanity has an active role to play within the world, endowed with the moral responsibility to assume creation in an act of giving in order to refer it to God in an act of thanksgiving.
The seventh-century hermit on Mount Sinai and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, who is remembered every year in Orthodox monasteries during Great Lent, wrote:
"A monk without possessions is master of the entire world."
Similarly, St. Paul recommends the avoidance of avarice, when he writes:
"As we have food and clothing, let them suffice to us" (I Timothy 6:8).
Asceticism and self-restraint are ways of realizing the words of St. Paul, who elsewhere says that we are to be:
"As having nothing yet possessing all things" (II Corinthians 6:10).
It is following the commandment of Christ:
"Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses it for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25).
Now, this voluntary ascetical life is not required only of the hermits or monastics. It is also demanded of all Orthodox Christians, according to the measure of balance. That is to say, each Orthodox Christian is called to practice a voluntary self-limitation in the consumption of food and natural resources. Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need. Only through such self-denial, through our willingness sometimes to forgo and to say ‘no' or ‘enough' will we rediscover our true human place in the universe. Such is part and parcel of the ascetic ethos of Orthodox spirituality.
Let us, by way of example, explore one specific aspect of ascetic practice in the Orthodox Church, namely fasting. Orthodox faithful fast from all dairy and meat products for almost half of the entire year. There is the Great Fast of Lent before Easter, the lenten season prior to Christmas, a period of fasting before the feasts of the Dormition in August and of the Apostles in June. There is also a weekly discipline of abstaining from meat and dairy produce each Wednesday and Friday of the year (monastics additionally fast every Monday), as well as certain specified days of fasting in commemoration of particular events or saints. The fact that we fast almost half of the year is itself an indication of an effort to reconcile secular time with sacramental time, the time of this world with the age of the kingdom to come.
If we examine fasting more carefully, we shall see that it does not aim at denying the world, but at affirming the significance and sacredness of material creation. It is a way of integrating body and soul, while at the same time recalling the hunger of others. Indeed, it is becoming aware of the hunger of creation itself for healing and restoration. When we fast, we remember that we live not by bread alone. We also remind ourselves that we are a part of an entire community, the fellowship of humanity and the natural environment. This is why Orthodox Christians will never fast alone or at whim; we always fast together and at set periods of the year.
Therefore, fasting is the conviction and acknowledgment that "the earth, is the Lord's, and all the fullness thereof" (Psalm 23.1). It is an affirmation that the material creation is not under our control; it is not to be exploited selfishly, but rather to be returned in thanks and restored in an act of communion with God.
In the final analysis, and beyond people's perception of fasting and asceticism, fasting is learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is learning to share and to connect with others and with the natural world. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God's world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion. It is regaining a sense of wonder, being filled with a sense of goodness, and seeing all things in God, and God in all things.
The Orthodox attitude of asceticism and practice of fasting appears not to impose any method of dealing with and solving the environmental problems of our time. However, just as the individual actions of tens of thousands of members of society produce great pollution, so the voluntary restraint of an Orthodox monk is of great benefit for all. It is a lesson in "cultivating and keeping the earth" (Genesis 2.15). Therefore, the discipline of fasting becomes a necessary corrective for our culture of wasting. It is a way of breaking bad habits and of seeing the world with new eyes, or with God's eyes.
Now, by way of conclusion, you will perhaps remember that, at the outset of my address, I mentioned that the newly-tonsured Orthodox monk or nun stands before the community bearing three symbolical tokens. The last of these is a prayer-rope. It is a symbol of the continual struggle and desire expressed through prayer for the protection of our world. The environmental program of the Churches cannot simply involve philosophical or political changes. It must include a spiritual repentance that occurs only through continual prayer. Addressing the ecological issues of our time will not only take place in the public sphere or the political domain. It will primarily take place on our knees.
May God's abundant mercy always hear the voice of our prayer, watch over our heart, and guide our steps for the integrity and renewal of His creation.