Liturgical Asceticism – David Fagerberg

September 28, 2011

Coptic icon of Saint Anthony the Great

The objective of the previous posts has been to deepen the grammar by which we speak about liturgy itself, and to do so in order to prepare us to speak specifically about liturgical theology. Since I intend to follow the lead of Schmemann in developing a connection between liturgy and theology that could be called organic, my definition of liturgical theology raises a wide range of questions about the vocation of liturgists. Let me speak directly about this liturgical vocation. This is, in other words, a clearer elucidation of liturgical asceticism.

There are general definitions of asceticism from which liturgical asceticism must be distinguished. The term askein, from which askesis comes, meant “to work.” Asceticism thus came to mean discipline and training, especially the sort that an athlete undergoes, as John McGuckin explains:

The word “asceticism” derives from the Greek term for physical exercise, such as athletic practice. The idea of training the soul to virtue by disciplining the body is fundamental to monastic theory. Here, Christian monasticism provided a distinct and original anthropology. In many Greco-Roman theories the purpose of “philosophic” asceticism was to purify the soul of the body’s influence…. In its purest form the Christian concept of ascesis seeks not the liberation of the soul in the body but the integration of the person, spiritually and materially, Ascesis was thus a manner of disciplining the body and training the mind by prayers, vigils and fasting, until the whole person was attuned to his or her best ability to hear and obey the voice of Gods’

Asceticism therefore involves the idea of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. Since there are a large number of reasons for which one might submit to a discipline, I have no objection to a large number of uses for the word asceticism. When an athlete is placed under discipline in order to train for a prize, it is athletic asceticism; when a person disciplines excessive consumption of goods for the sake of distributive justice it might be called moral asceticism; when a person refrains from those same goods during wartime, it may be called patriotic asceticism; when a child learns to discipline wants and outbursts of frustration, that self-discipline may also be said to have an ascetical quality about it. In this way, different types of asceticism could be identified by different formal causes. Paul Evdokimov admits this range of meaning, too:

The word “ascesis” comes from the Greek askesis and means exercise, effort, exploit. One can speak of the athletic ascesis when it seeks to render the body supple, obedient, resistant to every obstacle. The ascesis of scientists and doctors shows their magnificent abnegation that sometimes costs them their lives. Monastic tradition has given to this term a very precise meaning; it designates the interior combat necessary in order that the spiritual acquire a mastery over the materials

It is easy to imagine religious causes of asceticism, too. Religious asceticism would be a disciplined endeavor to find God. The existence of pre-Christian and extra-Christian asceticism is a phenomenological fact (just like the existence of pre-Christian and extra-Christian religion is a phenomenological fact). But I shall maintain that liturgical asceticism is different from both moral asceticism and religious asceticism, and distinguish them not so much by the practices employed, but by the cause and end to which they are employed. That is exactly why two words (liturgical and asceticism) are required to name the single, simple reality liturgical asceticism. It is a theological category, not a moral, civic, religious, or athletic one. Evdokimov states it succinctly: “An athlete exercises his body; an ascetic, his flesh.”

Christianity shares many religious practices with the whole of humanity. This is a corollary of believing that grace perfects nature, and there is no alarm in this admission: It is, in fact, a sign of the solidarity and compatibility of Christianity with human nature. Perhaps no one understood this better than G. K. Chesterton, whose writings often contained an apology for the rather pagan quality of certain Catholic acts. For example, when critics of Catholicism complained that “ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin,” Chesterton replied, “they might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet.

Neither do I deny that fasting, vigils, and solitude were practiced by religious persons before they were practiced by Christians. The Church did not create asceticism, and I do not deny that there were ascetics before there were Christians. In fact, liturgical asceticism does possess this religious dimension, meaning by “religion” what Archimandrite Boniface Luykx meant when he called it “making a path for God to come to you by.” There is a religious aspect to liturgical asceticism. After all, Christian ascetics who make a profession are called “religious” (priest, lay, religious).

However, Chesterton also pointed out modernity’s tendency to overlook content when noticing similar forms, a tendency which he said led ethical societies and parliaments of religion to conclude that “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” Chesterton contradicts this. “It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach…. They ,agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with lie same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn (brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught.”

Similarly, I will suppose that liturgical asceticism and religious asceticism agree in their machinery: They will use the same external methods of fasting and celibacy. But liturgical asceticism will differ from religious asceticism in its arche and telos (origin and end, principle and purpose). Not all monasticism is liturgical, any more than all worship is Christian; but liturgical asceticism does exist, as does liturgical worship.

Jeremy Driscoll affirms this in Evagrius who recorded the understanding of the Desert Fathers: “Evagrius himself is witness … to how at base this monastic heritage has a distinctive Christian face which distinguishes it from all other traditions of spiritual exercises, from other cultural manifestations of monasticism. This distinctive face, again, is the face ofthe incarnate Lord who is with the monk in every stage of his exercises….” Every mystery of the Church — its sacraments, its laws, its hierarchy, its exercises, its ministry — exists for the sole purpose of being a means to participate in the mystery of Christ. Therein lies the difference between Christian asceticism and other religious asceticism. What makes it liturgical asceticism is the fact that it is a means of participating in Christ. There is a natural virtue of moral discipline that might lead a person to make ascetical experiments in goodness or justice or humility before Almighty God, but I am speaking of a discipline that is required to become a liturgist in Christ’s body. Asceticism is requisite to being a liturgist and to becoming a liturgical theologian.

All this is presented to help explain the kind of theology a liturgical theologian does. Liturgy is not just ritual; it is a way of living and a way of thinking, expressed ritually. I will try to make this point by nesting asceticism and theology within the fundamental liturgical mysteries of creation, sin, salvation, and deification. Our liturgical life is our synergistic participation in the economy of God, as the Almighty gathers up history to bring it to eschatological perfection.

I will turn to the Christian East (particularly the fourth-century hymnographer, Ephrem) in order to speak of asceticism as a vocation that includes the liturgist, and not only the monk. I will do so for a reason John Paul II understood when he wrote: “In the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord; it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity.”

From the beginning, God intended to share divine life with man and woman, and the incarnation is simply the flowering of the paradisal seed God planted. Jesus is called the “final Adam” because he is, finally, what Adam and Eve were meant to be. Jesus is the eschatos Adam. The life anthropos simultaneously leads in the visible and invisible worlds is the anthropological potential for the incarnation. The incarnation is neither an afterthought by God, nor a simple case of damage control, for the Father had Christ before his eyes when Adam and Eve were made.

God sculpted the human person while looking at his Wisdom, the celestial humanity of Christ…. In the thinking of the fathers, above the potential abyss of the Fall, God sculpted the human face while looking at the humanity of Christ in the depths of his Wisdom…. Christ did not become incarnate in a foreign and utterly alien element, but he found in man his own heavenly and archetypical image, for God created man while looking at the heavenly humanity of the Word of God (1 Corinthians 15:47-49), preexistent in the Wisdom of God.”

From the moment God created, the economy was under way that would lead to the moment when God would appear in the midst of his ecstatic product, material creation. Jesus is the ground of God’s hierarchies.

Human being is unique among other ways of being in the world, and in at least three ways. First, anthropos is microcosmic because in men and women can be found everything that is in the entire cosmos. Anthropos is made of matter and spirit. Gregory Nazianzus said God produced a being “endowed with both natures, the visible and invisible…. Thus, in some way a new universe was born, small and great at one and the same time. God set this hybrid worshipper on earth to contemplate the visible world, and to be initiated into the invisible; to reign over earth’s creatures, and to obey orders from on high.” No other creature is enrolled as simultaneous citizen in both realms.

Second, this microcosmic capacity enables anthropos to be royal priest, ruling over matter in the image of God. In Schmemann’s words:

All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. Homo sapiens, “homo faber” … yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans. “The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this Eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing Eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament

Men and women were created with the capacity to recognize the logoi of material things (reflected in the biblical story of Adam naming the animals; he called things as they are). There is a world to be celebrated. The angels know it, but cannot experience it sensually; the animals experience it, but cannot know it spiritually. Only man and woman praise God for a world taken in through the senses and wondered at by the intellect. At the incarnation, the Word will not assume an angelic nature, or an animal nature, but rather a human nature, because of this microcosmic and priestly potential. Gregory asks,

Do you realize how much your Creator has honored you above all creatures? He did not make the heavens in his image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe. You alone are made in the likeness of that nature … you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness… Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens fit into the palm of God’s hand. And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you, nor is He cramped as he pervades your entire being.

The third way anthropos is unique is because this is given as potential that is not actualized without our cooperation. In order to be a liturgical temple in whom God is not cramped, anthropos must act. Other beings are finished as soon as they are made. There is nothing else to add to a dog to make it finally canine, a cow does not progressively grow more bovine, and a cat is sufficiently feline as a kitten. But men and women are made homo via/or: a being-on-the-way. Anthropos is a verb (a human being) until he or she becomes a noun (saint).

Ephrem says God created anthropos this way in order that men and women would enjoy the potential to contribute to their own reality. Human nature was made with the capacity to participate freely and willingly in a process of growing into the likeness of God. Created in the image of God, a human person also lives by relationship, and this provides for maximum individuality. God planned beings who could attain maximum personality:

For this is the Good One, who could have forced us to please Him, without any trouble to Himself; but instead He toiled by every means so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will, that we might depict our beauty with the colors that our own free will had gathered; whereas, if He had adorned us, then we would have resembled a portrait that someone else had painted, adorning it with his own colors.”

We were created for immortal happiness — and I do not mean by the modifier how long the happiness will last, but from whom it must come. Only the Immortal One can satisfy us, and communion is the ordered end for men and women. The liturgical posture of homo adorans is even more basic to anthropos than homo erectus, and happiness will elude us until we stand aright in our vocation as liturgical beings.

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