Spiritual discipline

The title of this book in French is Un chemin de liberté, l’ascèse, A pathway to freedom, Asceticism; we considered using the word Asceticism in the translation title and as of this writing I am still not really sure whether the use of the term is attractive or repellant. An important element of the book is just that every form of spiritual discipline is a form of asceticism, and rather than focusing on some of the historical and sometimes harsh forms of ascetic behaviour, Daniel points out that as time went by, the Church Fathers continually moderated the extremes as not proving helpful, in fact concluding that temperance was best. The objective of all ascetic practice is humility, or rather, God, who looks for humility.

I would suggest that this book is in fact intensely practical from a pastoral point of view. It should be read together with Spiritual Maladies and promotes a very sound, sensible and practical approach to spiritual growth. Some elements of modern psychology may help, but there is much here that is simply more consonant with the word of God; the book really has to do with God as our Healer. I would personally highly recommend this book and, while I do that with all Daniel’s books, I would say this book is particularly valuable as a link with the Church Fathers, who are often cited, and as a guide to ‘spiritual formation.’

There are five chapters.

  1. Asceticism in the Bible. The Greek word aksesis belongs to the sporting arena; in the spiritual sense it implies the training of the body to obey the soul and help fulfill God’s word. The biblical background has mainly to do with fasting, which is stated to be for the humbling of the soul. Daniel goes through much of what is said in the Bible about fasting.

How, though, is this humbling of the soul to be manifest unless, in particular, by imposing on oneself fasting with regard to food? It is entirely natural that anyone who is deeply afflicted about having saddened the God he loves and to whom he is attached would really have no taste for food, not until forgiveness has been received. Anyone who wishes to show God his affliction will voluntarily accept the humbling of his soul in fasting. Fasting perfectly finds a place here as an expression of repentance, and even, if necessary, as an aid to experiencing the repentance more intensely. Fasting is part of the process of repentance.

The biblical expression says it clearly: fasting is the humbling of the soul. It is not a vexation undertaken to mortify the body. Fasting is directed at the soul through the body.

Further, to chastise one’s body is to take God’s place; it is to judge in place of the true judge. To humble is not the same as to punish; it is a process of penitence directed towards the only judge, from whom grace and forgiveness are hoped. The ascetic who punishes himself through his asceticism is only ignoring God, as though there were no expectation of his grace and pardon. No; fasting, and spiritual discipline generally, accompanies a person in their movement towards God in full expectation of his grace. This is fundamental!

Jesus sought to purify fasting of its various accretions of pride! A person who fasts is always more or less full of the sadness of Yom Kippur or some other sorrowful day. Setting out to seek pardon of God is to prepare to meet your judge, in uncertainty as to his mercy and grace. But here, Jesus replaces the word “God” with “Father,” even “your Father”! The meeting Jesus depicts is that of intimacy between a child and his Father “in secret.” Repentance is then filled with an immense hope, since for Jesus the word “Father” overflows with love; the quest for grace and forgiveness from the Father proceeds much more quickly than with a judge. However, the pain of having offended the Father is also much greater than that of offending a judge! The teaching of Jesus underlines here both the pain connected with fasting and the hope which prepares for joy. You, when you fast, get ready to meet your Father . . . A joyful sadness!

2. The ascetic’s warfare. Daniel looks at the practices of the monks in overcoming pride. The enemy is not the body, which is instead fortified by discipline; no it’s pride. Jesus calls us all to ascetic effort — STRIVE to enter the strait gate; he himself led the way as he strove, agonized in Gethsemane. This struggle is a necessary facet of life.

3. Asceticism and spiritual therapy. There is a discussion of the passions. The tendency was to move away from violent striving – conquering – to remedy, therapy, with the 8 passions as a major diagnostic tool, with the 3 primary passions, the love of money, love of glory, love of pleasures, all leading to the others. Ascetic effort reveals our problem – do we find giving hard? – then we find ourselves afflicted by avarice, and also reveals our lack of love for our neighbor. Discipline helps the healing process – but it is God who heals; thus, as we engage with the discipline of giving (with God!) we become free of avarice and begin to take joy in giving.

When we take hold of what Jesus reveals about God, our relation to evil as it relates to God is also profoundly changed. Before a judge we will often seek to minimize or hide our participation in wrong doing in order to avoid punishment. We will also seek the judge’s pardon but always with the fear of not receiving it, By contrast, when dealing with a physician we want to expose to him our troubles, those blunders that make us even worse. We are thirsty for his intervention, longing for him to give us a precise prescription to follow; thirsty to collaborate in our healing, longing to follow the discipline he will propose.

The healing face of God revealed in Christ leads us always greatly to desire to be brought into the light and met with. We cannot really say this of God as judge!

As long as God remains to us essentially a judge, asceticism will always have a severe and even somewhat repressive side. When we discover God the physician, it will become what it should be, a way of health, a way of liberty.

4. Asceticism and synergy.

We see that there are two forces joining together, Paul’s and Christ’s. In his ascetic discipline, compared to the running of a race, Paul is animated by his own energy, with which is mixed the energy of Christ, who gave the first impulse by “seizing” him and then never ceases to give of his strength to such a degree that, having taken hold of it, Paul never slackens. It is this combination of two forces which means we can speak of “synergy.”

It is a synergy of humility. We know ourselves nothing and yet God ascribes to us the victory!

5. The fruit of asceticism

Here, Daniel switches, nominally at least, attention away from humility to the issue of purity of heart, which has as its outcome seeing God, and fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. However, purity of heart and humility come to pretty much the same thing; it’s just that there is a change in focus in the result – what we see.

In our pride we see only our own actions; in our humility we can see the hidden activity of God. With the illumination of our understanding, finally clear-sighted, it will be given us to see God at work, marveling to discover that God chooses our acts, small as they are, to perform miracles of his providence. It is so true that what we give to our neighbor is not the same measure as they receive, simply because over and above our charity, they receive God’s. God’s giving is more just, more appropriate than ours; it engenders neither embarrassment nor shame. Human charity gives birth in the recipient to a sort of embarrassment and shame, mixed with thanksgiving; God’s charity gives rise to thanksgiving purified of all shame.

The more humble we are, the less our eyes will be fixed on what we do, and will see only the actions of God. The truly humble see only God’s charity and not their own, God’s compassion and not their own, the love of God and not their own . . . The humble person who is in God, sees only what God is doing in them.

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