Could it be that we, in feeding our appetites to the extreme, have starved our souls of any sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful?
‘How could they possibly be true Christians and lock themselves away from the real world like that?’ This question met me in the middle of our pre-Bible-study dinnertime conversation. It was in regards to monasticism and asceticism. I had been writing a paper on the ‘missional-monasticism’ of the Church of the East all day, and had obviously been a little more enthusiastic about the topic than my friend was ready for. I let the topic go, but her incredulous reaction continued to play on my mind.
It is true that such a response to anything monastic characterized almost the entirety of my evangelical protestant upbringing. And by monastic, I mean anything especially liturgical, communal, cloistered—or anything involving fasting. These remarks were often filled with a certain pride in the ability to ‘be in the world, but not of the world’, a rejection of legalism, and a modernist desire to be rid of all medieval vestiges. And while I by no means believe that the monasticism of former days got it all right, as a student of church history I have began to wonder if, in forsaking elements of ancient ascetic practice, we are losing more than we are gaining.
Is it possible that modernist Christians, in rejecting former monastic practices, are actually becoming a different form of ‘ascetic’ than the ascetics of the ancient and medieval worlds? Of course we have no Simeon Stylites’ or St Anthony’s. There are very few who lock themselves away as hermits and starve the body for the sake of the soul. But could it be that we, in feeding our appetites to the extreme, have starved our souls of any sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful?
We have become ‘ascetics’ of the imagination and the soul, and even our bodies are the weaker for it. This stands in direct contrast to the ascetics and monastics of days gone by, who, in renouncing the ‘pleasures of life’ took a greater interest in true beauty, both physical and spiritual. The life of the imagination appeared guarded by the simplicity to which it was committed.
Ascetics found greater romance in their tales of heroic celibacy than in the pursuit of marriage. In shunning the joviality of worldly entertainment, they found richer beauty in the serenity of poetic liturgy. In rejecting ‘worldly-wisdom’, they formed the most prestigious centers of learning and education that the world has ever known. In fasting, they became the greatest homes of hospitality in human history. Through renouncing the world, they gained the world.
Perhaps it is time for us modernist Christians to take note from the monasteries of the ancient and medieval worlds. Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge our barrenness, for it seems that our liberality has caused a deeper lack, both in our own souls and in the world, than their asceticism ever did.
Perhaps it is time for us to lose our grip on the things of the world, so that our hands are free to serve the world. Perhaps, in being less full of the things of the world, our souls would be free to imaginatively delight in the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Please hear me. I am not advocating for an asceticism that hates the body and rejects the good creation of God. I am advocating for a manner of living that is different, simple, communal, and prayerful. Of living into the habits and virtues that the church valued in bygone days, being unafraid of being separate from the world, for the sake of the world.