The Sacred Pathway of the Ascetic (Part 5)
Editor’s Note: This post is written by Sword4Sail and is Part 5 in the Sacred Pathways of Walking With God.
The Ascetic: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity
“BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.”
My eyes could barely open. Why was I getting up so early? Oh yeah, I had signed up for this prayer time-slot on the board at church. The goal was to have the entire National Day of Prayer covered. I tumbled out of bed onto my knees, knowing if I remained laying down I would fall back asleep. Folding my hands, I began to pray. I was sure four o-clock would not come fast enough. Then I could go back to sleep. But when it did, I felt like I could keep going. Just me and God, in the middle of the night, praying on others’ behalf. If this sounds exciting to you, you may have the spiritual temperament of the Ascetic.
The monks didn’t just make up the idea of living life set-apart. God instituted the lifestyle of the Nazirite. The person made a vow of separation to the Lord and kept rites in order to create a picture of holiness and be “set-apart” until the time when they would come out and fulfill their vow (Numbers 6). We acknowledge today that times alone are temporary, and we must return to the world and the battle for God’s kingdom. But as we strive to be more like Christ, we note that He sought solitude many times, like in Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”
An ascetic is also called to mourn, as seen in Lamentations, Daniel, and Joel. Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Pathways, writes, “Certainly then, there is a time and place for the role of austerity and solitude in every Christian’s worship. For those with this particular spiritual temperament, however, these two qualities may be the most cherished forms of worship (110).”
The spiritual temperament of the Ascetic can be divided into three “worlds”: solitude, austerity, and strictness. Before we were married, my husband and I talked about making a special sound-proof room in our dream home with lots of plants, beautifully painted walls, and comfortable seating to get away and spend time with God. Without realizing it, we were pursuing the solitude of the ascetic. You may not have much opportunity to “get away”; the important thing is to have a “sense of apartness.” Maybe you could arrive early to work, or ask for keys to your church’s sanctuary.
Austerity is being severe in manner or appearance. Many monks would choose environments with low levels of sensory input so they wouldn’t be distracted. This is where the ascetic differs from the naturalist and the sensate. A practical example is Susanna Wesley, mother of brothers John and Charles, famous hymn writers and church founders. Susanna would throw her apron over her head and pray as a way of meeting God in a solitary place. Her kids learned not to bother her during this time.
The third world of the ascetic is strictness. This can be self-denial or sacrifice in order to be free to contemplate and pursue God. Thomas likens this to a lover who starts denying himself use of his money in order to save for a ring and sacrifices every weekend to spend time with his love. It is willingly done, and marked with a gentleness towards others.
These worlds of solitude, austerity and strictness are lived out through acts of devotion. My prayer in the middle of the night I spoke of earlier was an example of watching in the night. There is a stillness and expectancy, a waiting for the dawn to overtake the night, that can invite the presence of God.
And getting up to pray and worship God is the perfect thing if you’re having trouble sleeping. This ties in with being still, another act of devotion. “Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).” In being still, you let – or battle – distractions away, and meet God with full focus. This can be accompanied with a vow of silence for a time. Like stillness, fasting reveals to us just how caught up we are in “transitory matters (Thomas, 118).” We can fast from food, media, music, facebook, a phone etc. In order to squash dependency on these things, we may need to be willing to give up for a time the “delights and consolations of this world (Thomas, 118),” to enjoy the delights and consolations found in God. Taking retreats can be as simple as going for a few hours hike, stealing away to a church sanctuary, or scheduling a weekend stay at a near-by monastery or Christian camp. You’ll be surprised how many there are.
Obedience – putting ourselves under the authority of another – is important because it “assaults human pride and invites us to live in humility (119).” Thomas declares we live in an age where relativism says my opinion is just as valid as yours, regardless of a person’s wisdom. The act of submitting to authority in order to honor God (even if leaders are not ‘worthy’ of being obeyed) is something us wives should be able to practice quite readily. (In the instance when God’s will disagrees with man’s will, God’s will is to be obeyed: Acts 5:29)
Working hard can be worship. Jesus did it for 90 percent of his life. Thomas writes, “When we recognize the strength and ability to work are God’s gifts to us to help us provide for our needs and the needs of our families, the use of that energy and skill becomes an affirmation of the God who created and sustains us (121).” Ascetics will also like to live simply, avoiding packed schedules and preferring barren quiet rooms as a call to worship over ornate cathedrals. Enduring hardship calls us to press into God – the whole goal of the ascetic temperament. We can either stunt our spiritual growth when sickness, heat, cold, hunger, tiredness, stress or cranky kids come, or we can “embrace them, learn from them, and mature in our faith (Thomas 123).” The ascetic will also seek out harsher environments for their spiritual training.
Pressing into God through acts that cultivate solitude, austerity, and strictness is rewarding, but there are temptations as well. One can overemphasize personal piety. In Zechariah 7 the Israelites fasted and mourned, but God saw through their self-service and called them to serve others. Jesus taught and modeled ministry followed by rest (Mark 6:30-32). Ministry must also be a part of the ascetic’s life. Seeking pain for it’s own sake can also be a temptation. Masochism is an idol – you are the end goal, not God. Strictness is a means to a different end – a romance with God. Finally, seeking to gain God’s favor will never work. “It is futile to try to win God’s approval or forgiveness by developing extraordinary holiness (Thomas 124).” God loves you completely right now.
Ascetics call for a life of the spirit, a sense of separation from the world to seek God. We are also called to live in the world. So we seek justice and love mercy while walking humbly with God – remembering our relationship with Him is our highest priority, and only when we are loving Him can we love others. So take the plunge – try some of the acts of the ascetic – deliberately, humbly, and with an open heart. And come back next Friday to see if you have the spiritual temperament of the activist!
Are you an Ascetic?
Score this series of statements on a scale of 1-5. 1 is not true at all and 5 is very true. Any score of 15 or higher indicates a tendency toward this temperament. Keep track of your scores to complete a spiritual profile later.
1. I feel closest to God when I am alone and there is nothing to distract me from focusing on his presence.
2. I would describe my faith as more “internal” than “external.”
3. The words silence, solitude, and discipline are very appealing to me.
4. Taking an overnight retreat by myself at a monastery where I could spend large amounts of time alone in a small room, praying, studying God’s Word, and fasting for one or more days are all activities I would enjoy.
5. I would enjoy reading a book A Place Apart: Monastic Prayer and Practice for Everyone.
6. I would really enjoy spending time on a night watch, taking a short vow of silence, simplifying my life.