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Cleansing and Finding Strength
The natural result of solitude and silence is a far clearer picture of ourselves, whether or not we really want to see this. Longtime habits come into glaring focus; formerly innocuous-seeming quirks now appear embarrassing or even ominous. We can't simply enjoy ourselves and our idiosyncrasies anymore; we've become aware of what sits behind them. And the longer we look into the mirror of solitude and silence, the more we see. So this is what keeps me tied to that job I hate -- my shopping habit. And this is what causes my irritable snapping -- I always feel like I'm getting cheated out of my fair share.
In time, we become restless. It's no longer enough to keep having revelations about our habits and proclivities; we want to change them. This notion fills us with energy; it's time to do something! We roll up our sleeves and get ready for the struggle . . . then realize that we don't know where to start. How do we give up lifetime habits? Where do we even begin?
The next chapters, "Awareness: The Way of the Ascetic" and "Purity: The Way of the Celibate," deal with this stage of the journey toward a holier, simpler life. "Awareness" is about specific "exercises "or disciplines of the spiritual path -- ascetical practices developed in ancient times to train the body and the mind in new ways of acting and thinking. Each was developed as a method of teaching us about the effects of desire and passion. Disciplines such as fasting were not about "earning spiritual points" or about self-punishment but were instead "experiments on the self." For the early ascetics, the laboratory for these experiments was the desert, where they could focus without distraction on what it was they were trying to learn.
In addition to providing self-knowledge, the disciplines acted as strengthening exercises. "Purity" shows that the goal of these disciplines was a human being no longer troubled at every turn by his constant need for food, warmth, or entertainment. Certainly, the ascetics also hoped to be freed at some point from the distraction of sexual desire -- or at least from the pain it caused them. The practice of chastity, one of the most important of these early disciplines, was thus meant not to block or deny sexual energy but to channel it in more useful ways.
The cleansing stage -- gradually abandoning self-destructive, wasteful or selfish habits -- can go on for a long time. In fact, it can become a new kind of obsessive passion, a problem of which the early ascetics were quite aware. For this reason, they insisted that the goal of ascetical practices was never spiritual athleticism, but love. These practices were not a competition, they were not "extreme sport" of the spiritual elite, but training in gentleness and humility.
St. John Cassian (A.D. 360-435), who spent fifteen years wandering the deserts of Egypt and Palestine where most of the early ascetics were living, wrote extensively on this phenomenon. St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) is of course famous for his Confessions, a long autobiographical work in which he examines, with unflinching honesty, his own sexual nature.
Awareness: The Way of the Ascetic
Suppose you were to be given an axe for some necessary use, and preferred to abuse it by killing the innocent, you could not blame the smith who made it, if you were to use for murder what he provided for uses both necessary and beneficial to life. --St. John Cassian (A.D. 360-435)
I sometimes reflect fondly on the fact that I was a normal teenage girl, regardless of what an odd adult I finally became. Such girls are notoriously enthralled with male prowess, and I'm proud to say that I was no exception. For me, the football stadium was holy ground, where noble warriors fought for the honor of our school. My own hero was a 245-pound tackle named Greg who went on to play for the Oilers. What intrigued me so about this unsuspecting target of my attention was the fact that he also played piano. I thought this a mark of admirable complexity -- also a hopeful sign in terms of my own desire to finally attract his attention. I was already aware that the single-mindedness of serious athletes did not bode well for the girls who worship them. Maybe he was different.
The football players may have been our heroes, but in terms of sheer focus, nobody could match the wrestlers. One of them, John, was a member of my Lutheran youth group. It was John who introduced me to the prolonged fast, the weeklong voluntary starvation of the wrestler trying to "make weight." Until I watched him go through it -- seven days of sweats and pallor and strange metallic breath -- I did not believe people could fast for a week. That he suffered was clear. I remember him gripping my forearm once as we were getting to our feet after a meeting, a hard, sudden grip as though he were keeping himself from passing out. I remember how miraculous I thought it that he could so easily forego the social hour brownies after not eating for five whole days.
What struck me most was his lightheartedness during what had to be an unspeakably painful and difficult ordeal. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, despite his increasing lassitude as the day of his wrestling match approached. His great effort, though debilitating, was just as clearly energizing. I didn't understand how this could be. More than anything, however, I was baffled by this level of self-denial in service of a goal.
St. Cassian and the Monks of Egypt
I did not think of John's long fast until years later when I stumbled onto a section of the fourth-century Institutes by St. John Cassian entitled "On the Training of a Monk." Cassian compares the disciplining of the novice brother to the training of a secular athlete, who must first prove himself in the "colt's division "before he is allowed to compete with grown men. Eventually, "if he can consistently hold his own against them in competition, as well as often winning trophies of victory among them, then at last he may deserve to compete in the great games, in which those alone may take part who have won prizes and have been rewarded with many wreaths.”
For the young monk, this meant ascesis, or the practice of deliberate self-denial in order to master the desires and passions. The body with its incessant demands for food, sex, warmth, and sleep was trained to do with less and less until it finally learned (quietly and obediently) to accept its proper place. Experienced ascetics could, for example, spend the night on their feet praying, or sleep on cold stone floors without a mattress, or regularly go two, three or even five days at a time without eating.
More subtle ascetical practices were aimed at controlling psychological dependence on money, social status, intellectual achievement, or a sense of moral superiority. A monk could own no private property and once he had divested himself of anything he'd brought with him to the monastery, was taught to continue the relinquishing process through laboring for the communal good instead of his own benefit.
The goal was a monk entirely liberated from the normal distractions of human life, a monk free from both physical and psychological constraints. This process, however, was not to be seen as an end in itself, for down that road lay the demon of pride. The purpose, instead, was to clear the vision, to enable a person to both see and focus on the one true thing, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. In addition, ascetical experimenters who had undergone this kind of profound personal transformation found that when they attained this level of focus, they were graced with tremendous powers, powers that allowed them to accomplish feats far beyond the usual human limitations. Psychic gifts such as clairvoyance and telepathy were commonplace, as was the gift of healing. Some of the more famous ascetics could command obedience from wild animals, multiply loaves for the hungry during time of famine, and appear in more than one place at the same time.
John Cassian was a firsthand witness to both the experiments and the spiritual accomplishments to which they eventually led. Though his early life is shrouded in mystery -- we do not even know where or when he was born -- in about A.D. 380 he arrived in Palestine with an older friend, Germanus. The two of them joined a monastic community in Bethlehem, near the Cave of the Nativity. At some point, an elderly visitor who was put up in their cell told them stories about what was happening in the Egyptian desert. Cassian was intrigued, particularly when the identity of his mysterious guest was revealed by a band of monks who arrived in search of him. The man was Abba Pinufius, a famous cenobitic abbot, Cassian learned that Pinufius had tried several times before to escape his high-level position in Egypt, a position that he feared tempted him to pride.
The old abbot was once again carried off by his "sons" to the desert, but the hook had been set; Cassian could not stop thinking about what he'd been told. He and Germanus applied for permission to make a short tour of the monasteries of lower Egypt and the Nile Delta, a tour that ultimately lasted (with several breaks) some fifteen years. During this time, the two of them not only visited anchorites but also went to the renowned monastic center of Scetis in Wadi al-Natrun, Nitria, and its outpost Kellia, ("the Cells,"). All three were famous for their asceticism, but it was Scetis that became Cassian's Egyptian base, and the holy men of Scetis who became the spokesmen in his great treatise on monastic theology, the Conferences.
Sometime around 410 he arrived in Marseilles, Gaul. Though there were monasteries in the West at this time, Cassian did not see anything that compared to what he'd experienced at Scetis. The only hope for reform of these undisciplined communities, he thought, was ex oriente lux, or "light from the East." Monks needed the kind of training he'd had in Egypt, but not many people with Egyptian ascetical experience were bilingual in both Greek and Latin and therefore able, as he was, to communicate freely with Western monastics.
Like Anthony and Pachomius before him, he now had a clear vision of what his work would be. Eventually, he founded two new monasteries in Gaul -- one for women and the other, St. Victor, for men. The instructions for these communities ultimately became the foundation for his other major written work, the Institutes.
Cassian saw the spiritual life as an ongoing struggle to free human beings of the passions and desires that distract them from their real purpose in this world. Ascetic disciplines were a means, not an end: For Cassian, the final goal was always perfected love. The term "purity of heart" appears often in his writings; for him, as for Plato and other ancient writers, Christian and pre-Christian alike, this meant a "simplicity hard-won through experience. "This, as Cassian scholar Columba Stewart points out, was "not a trait of the untested. "The person who stepped on this path could count on some measure of suffering.
Asceticism was a kind of ongoing experiment on the self that quickly revealed the obstacles that lay in the path that led to genuine simplicity. It was a set of exercises -- sometimes quite harsh by modern standards, that were designed to vastly sharpen one's awareness of the complexity and imperfection of human nature, especially one's own. Thus armed with the truth, no matter how unwelcome, a person could move forward. The opposite condition -- naiveté or fantasy about one's own "goodness" -- killed even the possibility of growth.
Cassian's predecessor, Pachomius, provides a good example of what asceticism was meant to accomplish. At the beginning of his spiritual life, long before he could envision the great Koinonia he would someday found, he sought out the best-known ascetic in the area, Apa Palamon, and knocked on his cell door. He was given some blunt instructions that included the following: "Try yourself in every point to find out whether you can be steadfast . . . When you come back we will be ready, in so far as our weakness allows, to labor with you until you get to know yourself" [my italics].
Apa Palamon here sums up both the experimental nature of ascesis and the fact that it is tailor-made to reveal our individual preferences and aversions, vanities and inferiority complexes, weaknesses and strengths. The ascetics that Cassian studied could thus be called scientists: they were finding out what happened to the "behavior and reactions of the body and the mind when they were subjected to precise material influences, "as Jacques Lacarriere puts it in his Men Possessed by God. Their laboratory was the vast solitude of the desert; their equipment was their own minds and bodies.
Self-Study at the Refrigerator Door
Though contemporary psychology has pretty much become the modern path to self-knowledge, I was utterly intrigued by this alternative method of self-discovery. My growing love for silence and my new sense that words were precious and meant to be hoarded made me wonder if modern, talk-dependent therapy was really the path to self-knowledge. The great ascetics trained others to become self-aware, but they did not rely on speech to do so. Instead, the novice watched and imitated, silently comparing his own results with that of the experienced practitioner, until he, too, understood what Apa Palamon meant by getting to "know yourself."
I was more than intrigued; I felt compelled to try this in my own life. What could other people could see in me that I could not? If Cassian were right, the answer to this question was embarrassingly blunt: way too much. I went back to the Institutes, specifically to his discussion of the "eight deadly sins "that are so handily revealed through asceticism.
On Cassian's list of sins, the first is gluttony and the third avarice; both, he points out, are types of greed and greed is basic to the human condition. Anyone who has tried to divvy up a birthday cake in a crowd of kids can attest to this: the pained yowl of "She got a bigger piece than me! Not fair, not fair!" really means, "I want the most for myself and I don't care what happens to anyone else. "According to the ascetical tradition, this primitive self-interest contaminates almost everything we do. If life were a birthday party, I thought, blushing, then guess who never thought she got a big enough chunk of the cake?
What could I do? Could I figure out some self-shaping exercises of my own without having to move into the cave of an experienced ascetic? Soloing did not seem wise. I did, however, have the Institutes and also my friends at the hermitage, who lived by the Camaldolese Rule and were only a telephone call away. Surely there could be no harm in a very small experiment? I asked myself what my first venture should be. Then I had my great revelation: My self-study would begin at the door of our well-stocked refrigerator.
Copyright © 2003 Paula Huston
|Pt. I||Withdrawing and Taking Stock||1|
|1||Solitude: The Way of the Hermit||7|
|2||Silence: The Way of the Cenobite||33|
|Pt. II||Cleansing and Finding Strength||59|
|3||Awareness: The Way of the Ascetic||65|
|4||Purity: The Way of the Celibate||93|
|Pt. III||Discovering a New Community||117|
|5||Devotion: The Way of the Psalm Singer||123|
|Pt. IV||Facing the Demons||147|
|6||Right Livelihood: The Way of the Laborer||153|
|7||Confidence: The Way of the Mendicant||183|
|8||Integrity: The Way of the Reformer||211|
|Pt. V||Returning to the World||241|
|9||Generosity: The Way of the Servant||245|
|10||Tranquility: The Way of the Contemplative||275|