Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ascesis--A Short How-Not-To-Primer

I do not rejoice in anyone's death or at least I hope that I do not.  But I will admit that when I read this article about a Swiss woman's death, caused by self-starvation (for she was trying to live off only the sun), I couldn't but throw up my hands and say "What were you thinking?  What kind of silly person believes that the sun is the only thing needed for survival?"  I've never heard of anyone dieing from lack of sunlight, though rickets may ensue. I've never heard of anyone living without food.  According to the article, the woman was following the teachings of an Indian guru whom she had seen in a documentary on Austrian TV.

When I posted this article on my facebook page, it got a few responses, mainly from friends of mine who are non-Christian, anti-Christian or just nominally Christian or anti-Orthodox Christian.  All of them said that this was no different from monks and other holy men and women who have died because of their own ascetic practices.  Of course, when I asked them to name one specific example, they could not. 

Now, I will certainly concede that I have not seen the documentary about this Indian guru and his teachings so I'm making a lot of assumptions.  My point here is not to debunk what this person teaches but to demonstrate that to make an ascetic struggle, this woman was lacking everything that she needed.  I do not question her motives--I'm sure that she, like many other people who desire to engage in self-renunciation, did so out of pure motives. But, for ascesis to be a success, it cannot be driven simply by one's own interpretation and will.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, ascesis is mandatory.  And I do not mean mandatory in the sense that it is legally prescribed and that you "have to do it or else" kind of legalism that many, particularly Protestant, Christians wrongly associate with us.  Ascesis is not the Gospel, but it is a means to fulfillment of the Gospel in each of us.  And it is for all Christians, regardless of age, sex, socio-economic status, marital status, vocation, etc.  It does vary by degree and intensity for those who have the strength.  But, no one is to engage in ascesis without the help and direction of a spiritual mentor.  That mentor, clergy, monastic, godparent, laity, is to guide and advise.  Without that help and direction which he or she can provide, ascesis will become an egoistic endeavour. Ascesis is to turn us to God, not to turn God to us by making sure He's taking note of what we're doing for points.

Again, the details of this story our pretty sparse, but the woman who engaged in this sunlight only diet of this Indian guru most likely did not have a mentor.  She also probably did not ease into it, but charged right for the finish line without realizing how far away it really was. 

With many Orthodox Christians, particularly converts who wish to rediscover the discipline associated with the church which has been largely drummed out of other Christian confessions, the immediate temptation is to jump into fasting, almsgiving and prayer with all guns blazing, full speed ahead.  That is dangerous and will most often lead to faintheartedness when immediate success is not realized to the point that the despair is so deep that those who fail count it as sinful. Many such people give up with ascesis entirely.  We must remember, always remember, that the struggle is not whether we fall, but whether we get right up and pick up where we fell.  And this cannot be done on one's own by one's own rule.  Christianity is communal and sacramental.  We all need each other and the spiritual life depends upon what we give to one another.

I am sorry that this woman  has died. I am not passing any judgment on the ascesis of the Indian guru she was attempting to fulfill, but any ascesis (whether it's giving up meat for two days a week or committing oneself to a vigil of prayer) must be done with a spiritual guide and free of ego.

No comments:

Post a Comment