The Ascetical Life

The life of askesis, or engaging in discipline, is of course not confined to monks. Askesis does not necessarily involve extreme practices, such as wearing chains or sitting upon a pillar, although some monastic athletes have pushed the boundaries of their discipline by such things to see how far they could go and where their limits lay. All Christians are encouraged and expected to fast. This involves abstinence from certain foods (such as meat, fish, and dairy) at certain times (such as on all Wednesdays and Fridays and during the four fasting seasons of the church year).

This program of asceticism, which is tailored to one’s circumstances under the direction of a spiritual director such as one’s parish priest, has as its aim the rooting out of one’s vices and the replacement of them with virtues. Everyone is subject to passions and weaknesses. Ascetical practices such as fasting, vigil (staying awake at night to pray), chanting psalms, and prayer can help in the war against the flesh and against our own deficiencies.

Such practices, however, must be performed with humility and a determination not to judge others, otherwise one will gain no benefit from such practices, but on the contrary will suffer spiritual harm. The church in its hymns repeatedly holds up the cautionary example of the Pharisee, warning the would-be ascetic not to judge or consider himself better than others, lest he fall under the condemnation received by the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14). Spiritual pride in one’s accomplishments is the worst of all faults, and the Church constantly warns its children against it.