Thursday, August 14, 2003

Ascetics or Aesthetics
The Orthodox Paradigm of the Path to Holiness

This has always been an interesting issue for me, a personal issue that I struggle with daily.

I was prompted by my buddy James' post of today on his somewhat tongue and cheek struggle for theoria (vision of God). After a rhetorical attempt at theoria simply by saying his morning and evening prayers regularly (amidst a torrent of dirty diapers, dirty dishes, lack of shampoo and other such morning trivialities) James finally admits: "Now, if by Sunday it has not happened, then I shall resort to reliance upon THIS:" wherein he pictures a fine bottle of whiskey.

There is more than a laugh here for us. There is something, I think, important beneath the surface. Namely: In the Orthodox Church we always have before us a dichotomy between ascetics or aesthetics.

You see this everywhere. On the one hand we are encouraged to fast for four major periods each year, plus Wednesdays and Fridays, plus several other one day fasts. And yet on the other hand we are encouraged to Feast:

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
(From the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom)

There is the ascetic practice of lifestyle: to live simply and harmoniously, loving God, man and nature. And yet there is the opposite side of the coin, the one which left the emissaries sent out from Russia in 987 to proclaim: "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth."

Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men. {The Russian Primary Chronicle}

The most frustrating thing, I think, about this dichotomy is the fact that both sides of the coin can lead to extremes.

Excessive fasting can lead at least three dangers that come to mind right off the bat:
1. A critical and/or judgemental attitude toward those who do not fast as seriously as yourself. This is the sin of Pride.
2. A weakening of the body that can cause one to fall into sin, due to lack of alertness, focus, energy... For example when excessive fasting can lead one to a sudden rebellion of gluttony.
3. A form of blindness in which the faster thinks himself spiritually superior to others. In this case, a person fasts so much that they begin to become delirious: see visions, hear voices, etc. Even if those voices / visions (which are downright hallucinations, with nothing from God about them) do not lead the excessive faster to physical or spiritual harm directly, they can certainly lead again to the sin of Pride. In a certain respect, this is the sin of drunkenness - since a person has caused himself to enter an unnatural hallucinatory state.

On the other hand, what is often the more obvious to us, is that excessive feasting can equally lead us to sin in several ways:
1. The sin of gluttony - not only filling the belly, but filling the mind with lurid and unholy thoughts.
2. The sin of pride - when we consider ourselves in a certain manner, better than others, because we have given ourselves greater liberty.
3. The sin of drunkenness - need I say more about our fine bourbons, and choice beers and wines?

What is truly remarkable about taking either fasting or feasting to extremes, is that in both cases you end up with exactly the same three sins. (There are probably more than three, but this is the three that seemed most obvious to me.)

So then, do we attain to visions of God through ascetics or aesthetics?

This is something I have always struggled with. I happen to be more on the side of loving aesthetics, rather than ascetics, but an excessive love of either leads to sin. Yet on the other hand, I often find myself around those who seem to rather love ascetics too much to be healthy, whole and active Orthodox Christians. If I become the obvious glutton to them, they work all the harder to subdue their carnal natures with excessive (even illicit) fasting.

What the Orthodox Church is teaching us by these two sides of the coin, I believe, is not a bi-polar personality state, but a sense of balance. God in his Divine and Infinite Wisdom knows that we need both feasting and fasting, and that excess of either can and does lead us into sin. This is why the Church has prescribed for us so many fast and (don't forget!) so many feasts!

So, let me digress into a discussion on hallucinations (and visions of God). There are many aspects of theoria which are poorly understood. For one thing, no Orthodox Christian is never supposed to seek a vision of God. The Saints (Gregory Palamas as the ascetic and Nicholas Cabasilas as the aesthetic) fought valiantly for the truth that the Energies of the Uncreated God are an aspect of His Divine Nature, precisely so that we wouldn't destroy the full implications of the incarnation. We CAN see God. We CAN because God became man.

That doesn't mean, however, that we should seek visions of God, either by fasting so much that we begin to have natural hallucinations due to the weakness of the body, nor by drinking so much we begin to have hallucinations due to the over excitement of the body. We should seek God Himself, His Love, His Peace, His Wisdom, His Divine Presence. We should seek God above and before and in all things. It is as a consequence of many years of struggle to See Him (not as a visual image conjured up from various natural excesses of our bodies) that we can and do begin to See Him. But in my own opinion if you cannot see Him, as Blake implies, "in a grain of sand", or as so many other poets, in a flower, a sunset, a cool walk on the beach, then you are not yet beginning to see Him. We must learn to see Him in the smiles of children, the cries of our babies, and the homeless man wandering the street (and stinking to high heaven of the gutters and ally ways) before we can begin to See Him As He is.

~ Basil ~

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