Feast of St Athanasius & Cyril, Patriarchs of Alexandria
SEVERAL years ago I completed an endurance event known as an Ironman. For twelve hours I endured deep, strenuous pain as I swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran a marathon—26.2 miles. By the time I crossed the finish line I had traversed 140.6 grueling miles in 98-degree heat, battling an unceasing 25-mile-per-hour cross-wind. Since then I have been asked: “Why did you do it?” The only answer I have been able to muster is this: I wanted to be authentic.
Authenticity is difficult to define. Broadly speaking we can say that authenticity is the modern notion that one is free to be the person one wants to be according to one’s desires and moral ideals. It involves being true to oneself and realizing the fullness of one’s personal capacities. For me, completing an Ironman was a significant way to express my freedom and stretch my capacities. I wanted to live on my own terms; I thought completing an Ironman was an authentic act of my self-expression.
With a measure of wisdom, I can now say I learned an important lesson in that time of my life that remains with me still: authenticity takes practice. To be the person I sincerely want to be, I have to submit myself to an arduous process of training, discipline, and self-denial. To be authentic I have to be ascetic.
Asceticism has little purchase in our culture. For moderns, it is associated with obscure religious practices or self-punishment. But this common view betrays an ignorance of asceticism that should be overcome by closer investigation.
Behind the word “asceticism” we find the Greek word askein, which means “to exercise” or “to train.” For ancient Greeks, askein was characteristic of athletes who endured rigorous training in order to participate in competition. Eventually the word became canonical among Greek philosophers who broadened its use to include the training of one’s intellect. The soul, like the body, needed to be trained for a particular set of skills that prepared one for the good life. Asceticism, then, was the liberating force that freed the athlete as well as the philosopher to discover an authentic way of being human.
Today, however, the nature of this relationship has changed. The muscular discipline that once made authenticity a component of virtue is reduced to lazy self-infatuation. Authenticity no longer requires ascetic practice, in other words; it only requires a will to act. In some instances, the endless pursuit of authenticity is a prison—an “iron cage,” as Max Weber put it—that modernity has constructed to confine the good life to immediate gratification.
The Christian tradition gives us an alternative vision of reality. In baptism a particular identity is conferred that is essentially one of discipline, sacrifice, and radical charity. In turn, Christians are reoriented to an authentic way of being in the world. Separated at the birth of modernity, authenticity and asceticism are reunited again in the Christian faith.
The baptized life, as David Jasper calls it, is an “ascetic reversal” (The Sacred Body, p. 34). John’s Gospel tells us, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:25). Baptism begins a journey marked by cruciform participation in Christ’s kenotic life. In Christ, Christians experience a beautiful death. Paradoxically, out of death they participate in Christ’s resurrection life, which is characterized by joy, shalom, and beatitude.
Christianity cultivates an ascetics of authenticity that takes one out of the iron cage of self-obsession and sets one’s feet in a “broad place” (Ps. 18:19) of delight and self-donation. This “broad place” is where idols are transformed into icons; humans become intimations of the sacred.
A poignant passage from Georges Bernanos’ novel The Diary of a Country Priest reveals the beauty of such an authentic life. In a moment of reflection on the true nature of prayer, the young priest says,
Scientists can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgment, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners in their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity! (Da Capo Press, 2002, p. 104)
Through asceticism and solidarity, this fellowship of suffering pilgrims becomes an authentic witness to the life-giving power of Christ’s resurrection.
Early in the Church’s history some Christians went into the desert to test the strength of their baptized identity. In his article on “Asceticism as Healing Art,” David Fagerberg tells us these desert Christians “wanted to see what it would take to order a life to God” (churchlife.nd.edu). In time they found the desert to be a healing place for their wounded souls. Seeking wisdom, others went to them asking for “a word” on which they could build their life. In reply they received stories focused on particular healing practices the monks had tried. As Fagerberg observes: “One put more emphasis on fasting; another on Scripture reading and vigils; all of them emphasized prayer, and all of them agreed that since charity is the goal, an opportunity to practice charity should trump whatever asceticism you have scheduled for that afternoon” (ibid.). Over time, rich liturgical and theological traditions developed from the lives and practices of these desert monks. The desert became a sacred space where one could wage war against the devil with the sword of prayer and in turn be refreshed by deep communion with God.
St. Maximus the Confessor (590-662), an erudite monk who helped refine the ascetic tradition, might be considered the Ironman of the Christian life. He embodies the ascetics of authenticity for he knew the only way to be authentically human—that is, to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ—is through self-abnegation. For Maximus, theosis requires kenosis.
In his first Century on Theology and the Incarnation, Maximus writes: “Baptized in Christ through the Spirit we receive the first incorruption according to the flesh. Keeping the original incorruption spotless by giving ourselves to good works and by dying to our own will, we await the final incorruption bestowed by Christ in the Spirit.” Baptism is the touchstone of the authentic Christian life. Living into the glory of our baptism, however, requires a recalibration of the will. Recalibration comes through slow, graced, ascetic practices such as fasting, silence, rigorous prayer, charity, and ingesting the Scriptures. The strength found in these practices is not instantaneous; each practice is like a muscle that is slowly transformed over time. Muscles cannot grow stronger unless they learn to work under pressure. The same is true of the soul. It gets stronger as it meets resistance.
But to put it this way risks missing Maximus’s larger vision of creation. In Maximus’s theology, Christians are a grand choir in the magnificent cathedral of creation, participating in the divine liturgy of the cosmos. The form of their participation is mimetic: Christians imitate the angelic hosts of heaven in their praise and adoration of the Holy Trinity. It is also communal: Christians don’t just imitate the angels; they also join them and the whole company of heaven as they sing an eternal hymn of thanksgiving. Out of this cosmic vision comes the ascetic virtues necessary for our participation, the highest of which is theologia, communion with God in contemplative prayer.
St. Maximus is a well-traveled guide for people who are seeking to live authentically in modernity. His cosmic liturgy offers us a thicker vision of reality that is therapeutic for our restive souls. But in Maximus’s vision, we do not escape the desert. There is no theosis without kenosis. In order to see the beauty of Christ we must embrace the horrific ugliness of his Cross—which itself possesses a haunting beauty. “For,” as St. Paul says, “if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Rom. 6:5).
In The Ascetic Life, a deep meditation on the meaning of the ascetics of authenticity, St. Maximus speaks about continuous devotion to God:
It is impossible for a mind to devote itself perfectly to God, except it should possess these three virtues: love, self-mastery, and prayer. Love tames anger; self-mastery quenches concupiscence; prayer withdraws the mind from all thoughts and presents it, stripped, to God Himself. These are the three virtues that comprise all the virtues; without these the mind cannot devote itself to God. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 21, p.114)
That the reorientation of our souls to the will of God requires more discipline, sacrifice, and strength of endurance than any feat of human accomplishment says something remarkable about the Christian life. To cultivate the virtues Maximus speaks of will be the most difficult task of our lives, to be sure. But the telos to which all our labors point is worth more than any treasure we can imagine. At the end of that journey we gain the wisdom of knowing that the ascetics of authenticity is only possible Coram Deo.
*This essay appears in Synaxis 6.1: The Symposium Journal, to be released at the 2019 Symposium.
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Ben Davis is a life-long resident of Wichita, KS, He is married to Lauren and is the father of Henry Tyler. Ben spends most of his time reading, discussing, and obsessing over books.