I remember a day in my college years, I was in a department store trying on some shoes and a pretty young lady was sitting a few feet from me. She had some flashy, fashionable high heel she was trying on and her mother remarked, “Those look uncomfortable.” Completely unfazed, the daughter replied with a smile, “pain is beauty.” Now, some ten years later, that brief conversation still comes to mind. What does it say about our humanity?
The word “ascetic” is normally used in a spiritual sense, referring to the person attempting to live a life of purposeful hardship in order to progress spiritually. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in 1st Cor. 9:25, And every man that striveth in the games exerciseth self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible and the Apostle Peter in 1st Pet. 4:1-2.
But I began asking myself, “Whose ascetic am I?” Along the same theme, Elder Paisios states that people sometimes make a martyrdom by their lives. But our “martyrdom” and “asceticism” are misplaced.
It seems that many women practice strict asceticism for the god of vanity: spending hours primping, getting pedicures, staying on a strict diet to remain thin, exercising, waxing, and undergoing body-altering surgeries: all of this to make themselves more sexually attractive. For them, all of this is a worthwhile sacrifice to serve the god that they believe in.
But I don’t intend to pick on women particularly; we men asceticize, sometimes in the same ways, other times in a different manner. We may be found bulking up muscle in the gym, buying expensive clothes and colognes, spending quite a bit of time styling our hair in the morning: all of this to appear strong, intelligent, and sexy. We men also asceticize for the god of worldly success. We spend hours working overtime at a job we dislike so we can climb the corporate ladder of worldly power, buy huge houses in nice neighborhoods, and frequently purchase the latest gadgets and cars.
Some people obsess over their health and food, spending any time they are not eating researching the latest trends in healthy eating, preparing the food, and exercising. Others obsess over saving, spending, and investing money. One can even asceticize for the ego by strictly keeping the rules of the Church, but doing so with arrogance and pride.
I have found that whatever my particular sinful passion is, I make sacrifices for it. My involvement in these ascetical works for the devil make the Church’s demands seem egregious. “What?” I cry, “the God of the cosmos wants me to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays? That’s too much!” I whine, complain, and feel a great deal of pity for myself. All of this because my god is my belly (cf. Phil 3:29) and my ego is my master.
The words of our Lord Jesus seem to make more sense, No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. (Matt. 6:24) By attempting to serve both my passions and attain to holiness, I am stretched impossibly thin.
The ascetical life of the Church is difficult for me, but that is often because of my lack of faith and belief in God, and my lack of an eternal perspective. Were those things in place, I would count all godly suffering and asceticism as true joy, which is the attitude of the saints. But the fact is that many of us are not in such a state; the tentacles of the world are wrapped through our hearts.
With such a tyrannical ego and pampered body, what is one like me to do? First, I must acknowledge my weakness and repent. The mystery of confession can help greatly with that step, even if I must confess the same things over and over, as long as I am renewing my effort to keep struggling every week and every day, that is what matters.
When I fail, I should not beat myself into despondency, but come to realize my weak state. I should repent and get back up again, thanking God that He has allowed me to fall so that I could realize just how weak I am. Such a realization can assist me in knowing my complete dependence on God and thereby acquiring humility, which is the mother of virtues. A spiritual fall will not usually kill a man; it is the failure to rise up again that leads to death.
Secondly, I should ask God to reveal to me the ways that I asceticize for the flesh and the passions. I so often misdirect the ascetical energy God has given me into the wrong things. This misdirected energy has been out of alignment so long that its habits seem normal to me and hardly feel sacrificial at all. As many saints have emphasized, these things take time and we should not allow ourselves to become discouraged by the journey. The struggle is a large part of our journey and it is the process God uses to perfect us.
With His grace, perhaps true, godly asceticism will one day seem easy and natural to me, like it did to so many of the saints such as Elder Porphyrios (see Wounded by Love), but I won’t hold my breath awaiting that magical moment. And until then, I will wake up each morning that God gives me with the decision of whether I will struggle for God or for worldly desires.