Asceticism as Healing Art

Healing takes many different forms because it is a response to many different kinds of threats. A cut and a broken leg are each healed differently because the damage is different; nevertheless, the same end is sought in both cases. The root of the word “heal” in old English (haelan) means to cure, to save, to make whole, sound, and well. That must further explain why we can apply the word metaphorically to matters other than the physical body. We can say that both a heart attack and a broken heart must heal, although one is physical and the other spiritual. The sense that healing is required arises when we have the sensation that the whole is not sound, an integrity has been lost, a quality has been lessened by some damage. We are not wholesome.

I am going to claim here that asceticism, as it is practiced in the Christian tradition, is a healing discipline. I am going to do so because asceticism also arises from the same sensation that something is not sound, and asceticism affects a repair. In other words, the reason we feel a need for asceticism is the very same reason why we feel the need for healing: that some damage has been done to our human nature, and some essential quality needs to be restored or strengthened. We are drawn to asceticism because we feel an absence, and would return to that which will make us whole. This presents a definition of asceticism that contradicts popular opinion. The discipline it imposes is no more destructive than when a poultice is applied to an infection, or a tourniquet to a wound. The last thing asceticism is is masochism. We would not go to the gym and begin exercising unless we felt unfit, and we would not begin asceticism except for feeling that our spiritual life is too easily winded.

The root of the English word “asceticism” is the Greek askein, which meant “to work.” In ancient application it was used to describe athletes in their preparation for an event. It is a discipline, but not in the sense of a punishment (the student was disciplined); rather, in the sense of a regimen (this is your training discipline). Soon enough, the word was taken up by philosophers in order to speak about a training of the spirit and mind, because the good life also requires constant practice. The Stoics were especially known for this, because for them philosophy was not just a set of beliefs, it was a way of life that required training. You practice medicine; you practice law; philosophy practices living. A person who aspires to a higher state does so through regular, attentive struggle to attain the highest good, and that will require ordering the goods in one’s life. Sometimes that means denying yourself the easier, lower goods for the harder, higher goods. That’s how asceticism received its negative reputation.

So far, I think that asceticism sounds like an exercise designed to make us excel in virtues that we already have, but matters become more complicated when we pass from philosophy to Christianity. To adapt the famous words of Søren Kierkegaard, we do not suffer a weakness that needs to be strengthened, we suffer a sickness unto death. Asceticism, as Christianity has understood it, does not so much need to strengthen the weak philosopher as it needs to cure the sinful person. It is not a matter of enhancing powers, it is a matter of curing, saving, making whole and sound. Asceticism is therapy. Man and woman were created sound and wholesome, but something has gone wrong. The Divine Physician examines us, and our conscience agrees with his diagnosis: we are not now in the condition that he intended for us. We are wounded. We need healing. Asceticism clears and awakens, cures and cleanses, repairs and fortifies a sinner until that sinner can be led by sanctifying grace to a restored life of holiness.

From what illness do we need healing? A doctor would like a more accurate diagnosis than simply being told that the patient doesn’t feel well. Why doesn’t he? Where does it hurt? Why isn’t this organ, or this muscle, working the way it should? For that matter, how should it be working? The antidote must be mixed in exact proportion to the poison, and we must have an idea of the well person in order to know when the healing is complete. Medical doctors have investigated these questions and shared their discoveries with each other; spiritual physicians have investigated similar questions but on a different plane, and shared their discoveries in the ascetical writings. They wanted a more accurate diagnosis than simply being told the patient is a sinner. How does the sin infect us? Where does it hurt? Why isn’t this virtue, or this goodness, working the way it should? For that matter, how should it be working?

Very early in the history of the Church, some Christians went into the desert for the same reason that doctors go into a lab: in order to carry out a radical experiment. These Christians in the desert, called monks, wanted to see what it would take to order a life to God, and for this purpose they decided to conduct an experiment upon their own human hearts. As we all remember from high school science class, the first step is to remove external factors that might affect the experiment. This is called a controlled environment. If you want to test whether playing the music of Mozart makes a plant grow bigger, you must isolate the plant and control its reception of water, light, and fertilizer. The Desert Fathers also sought a controlled environment for their experiment, but they removed the external factors by removing themselves from the world. They retired to the desert, away from city, family, wealth and property—not because they thought these things were bad (they weren’t Manichaeans), and not to do something which didn’t concern all the faithful. They did it in order to search for the tranquility required to notice the movements of the heart. They wanted to know why this spiritual organ wasn’t working the way it should.

What they learned, they shared, as any good healer would. People came to them in the desert “asking for a word,” and they shared stories about experimental healing therapies they had tried. One put more emphasis on fasting; another on Scripture reading and vigils; all of them emphasized prayer, and all of them agreed that since charity is the goal, an opportunity to practice charity should trump whatever asceticism you have scheduled for that afternoon. Into this community of monks came a certain seeker named Evagrius of Pontus. He had had some brushes with sin that greatly alarmed him, and he sought out the experienced wisdom of these therapists. He organized what he learned there, and it has become the basis for understanding asceticism ever since. I use his name in what follows, but he is only the recorder.

Evagrius understood well that nothing God created is evil. How, then, came the vices, or “passions,” as he called them? It cannot be that the heart and nature we were given by God is faulty; instead we must have fallen ill to a sickness unto death (this account is told in Genesis 3). Satan is not an equal opposite to God; he cannot create anything; he can only distort, bend, corrupt. As C. S. Lewis overheard Screwtape say in his famous letters on temptation, complaining about “the Enemy” [God]:

He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which he has forbidden. . . . Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages.[1]

The ascetic does not think nature is evil, he does not think the heart is bad, he does not think our appetites are wicked—but he does think our appetites have been misdirected, and that they must be controlled before they control us (as John Climacus says in step 14 of his Ladder of Divine Ascent).

How do the demons bend our good faculties? Wanting a precise diagnosis in order to aid our healing, Evagrius first identifies three faculties in every person, and how they should operate healthily. He has a head start on this because the Greek philosophers had been thinking about it for some time. Human beings can reason, they can desire, and they can be stirred to strong feeling. These were called the intellective faculty, the concupiscible faculty, and the irascible faculty. They are good faculties, because they have been installed in us by our Creator. The reasoning done by our intellective faculty is good because it makes us superior to the irrational beasts; the desiring done by our concupiscible faculty is good because it is awakened by good things God wants us to want; and the strong feelings in the irascible faculty are good because they stir us toward righteous action. As given to Adam and Eve, these three faculties are good gifts from a good Creator. But the passions arise upon the misuse of these faculties. In all things, misuse is sin. Evil does not reside in our substance, but in our mistaken movement. Peter of Damascus says, “it is not food, but gluttony, that is bad; not money, but attachment to it; not speech, but idle talk . . . Not authority that is bad, but the love of authority; not the glory, but the love of the glory and—what is worse—vainglory. . . . It is not the thing itself but its misuse that is evil.”[2]

The soul is moved reasonably when the intellective faculty is ruled by God (his law having been revealed to us in conscience and Torah), and this faculty rules the other two in turn. Here is how Maximus the Confessor explains it: “The soul is moved reasonably when its concupiscible element is qualified by self-mastery, its irascible element cleaves to love and turns away from hate, and the rational element lives with God through prayer and spiritual contemplation.”[3] So long as the whole person stands under God, the faculties within the person operate correctly. As soon as pride wants to wriggle out from under God (original sin), then the faculties within the person go haywire, too. Life apart from God is death, and from this dead state the sickness that Evagrius called the passions begins to crop up.

It should be noted now, therefore, that for this Eastern Christian ascetical tradition the word “passion” has a different meaning from the one it has in the West. In the Western tradition the word is neutral, and a passion can be good or bad: one can have a passion for art, or commit murder in a passion of jealousy. In the East, however, a passion is a distorted faculty. A passion is a defective faculty, like a physical heart having a defective valve, and both need healing just as badly. Asceticism is that healing process exercised upon all three faculties. Maximus says, “almsgiving heals the irascible part of the soul; fasting extinguishes the concupiscible part, and prayer purifies the mind and prepares it for the contemplation of reality.”[4] Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—incumbent on every Christian, and practiced with special deliberateness during Lent.

As I have been suggesting, in order to heal the disease, we must have a detailed diagnosis, so Evagrius looked further into this. He identified eight seeds of the passions—in other words, sources which are not yet passions but are sparks planted by the demons to be fanned into full flame. He called these the “eight evil logismoi.” They are: gluttony, lust, and avarice (corruptions of the concupiscible faculty); then anger, despondency, and sloth (corruptions of the irascible faculty); and vainglory and pride (corruptions of the intellective faculty). “Logismoi” means an impulse, a suggestion, a thought that emerges from a place out of our control, and they are fostered by the demons. These “thoughts” are the means used by the demons to trouble the sinner. We do not intend to be lustful or vainglorious, but those tickles of temptation rise up in us anyway. The logismoi are symptoms of a nature corrupted by original sin, like coughing is a symptom of tuberculosis, and, as such, Evagrius says we are not culpable for them.

Having the thought is not a sin because the logismoi flit into our minds uncontrollably. However, one is definitely morally responsible for what one does with it. Abba Moses compares the activity of the heart to a millstone being turned by a swift rush of water. We are incapable of stopping the stone from turning, but it is in our power to decide whether to grind wheat or weeds. (This is how we can say that Jesus was tempted, yet he was without sin: the tempting thought to turn stones to bread occurred to him, but he did not act on it.)

When we allow the temptation to linger, when we dally with it, so to speak, then it can develop into a full-grown passion. When Evagrius’ list of the passions reached the West, they became the basis for the seven deadly sins enumerated by Gregory the Great: lust, gluttony, avarice, despondency, anger, envy, and pride. The infection has become deadly. These kill our relationship with God if they are not cured. And now we have gotten to the root of asceticism. It is a system for battling the passions, a therapeutic regimen. If I compared it to chemotherapy, perhaps I would call it ‘pneumatherapy,’ since it is accomplished by the Holy Spirit (pneuma, the breath of God; oxygen therapy). All of the ascetical practices are designed to make us watchful and attentive, attuning our mind to God so that when the mind descends into the heart it will cause pure prayer.

I have not yet used the Greek word for passions but now I need it. The passions that are corruptions of our faculties were called pathos; the opposite of a passion, the absence of a passion, the cure of a passion was called apatheia: dispassion. This is not “apathy.” It is a state of deep calm; it is fear of the Lord; it is the harmonious integration of the emotional life; it was applied to Christ himself; it means awakening the spirit from its sluggishness; it is the restoration of what is natural; and when Evagrius’ disciple John Cassian tried to translate it into Latin he chose the phrase puritas cordes—purity of heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). The goal of the ascetical life is to attain apatheia. This might not be accomplished fully in this life, but we can already see saints who are unruffled by passions like envy and vainglory and avarice. Humility has begun to conquer pride, charity has begun to rule, and the patient’s health is returning.

Evagrius concludes from his mentors in the desert that there are three stages in the total process, and so far we have only been describing the first. The hardest ascetical lifting is done in the first stage called praktike. As you can see from the word, it concerns praxis, practice, discipline, training. But then Evagrius says, “praktike attains to apatheia, and apatheia has a child called agape who keeps the door to deep knowledge.”[5] Praxis leads to contemplation; praktike leads to theoria; the ascetical training leads to deeper knowledge. Knowledge of what? Two things, Evagrius says, identifying the final two stages. First, the creation, and, second, the Creator.

When the cataracts of sin have been removed from our eyes, we can see the world in a new light—the light of Mount Tabor, the light of God’s glory, the light of the Kingdom. We can see spiritually, for we would see beyond appearances and know the Maker through what he has made. Evagrius calls this stage physike. It is akin to our word “physics,” because it has to do with knowing the created cosmos; it is also akin to our word “physic,” meaning a medicine or drug, or the medical profession. Evagrius is describing the kind of physics which would heal by knowing the world properly: a true physician would know the world to be a temple. Physike is more than appreciating a sunset. It is a contemplative wisdom that can find the hand of God in all things because it sees Providence at work in nature. This requires Scripture to guide us into nature.

And the third stage? The end toward which the rungs on the ladder of asceticism have been helping us? This is knowledge of God, but knowledge in the biblical sense. Abraham knew Sarah and nine months later Isaac was born. It is a kind of knowing that is immediate, and not mediated by creation; it is experiential knowledge, because it arises from the experience of union with God. Evagrius calls this third stage theologia. The beginning of theology is not the card catalog in the library, but instead it is doing battle with the passions in the heart; and the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. This is a state Christian tradition has called deification (theosis): it is participation in the life of the Trinity, made possible by the incarnate Son and extended to us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Theologia is direct communion with God in pure prayer, which is why Evagrius said “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”[6] Asceticism produces theologians. And this is a vocation for every Christian. Asceticism may have been perfected in the sands of the desert, but it is born in the waters of the font. Every baptized member of the Church is called to this union, this prayer, this deification, this theological state. Since we are crippled with original sin at the beginning we will only attain it through ascetical therapy, which cures our corruption and recovers a sound spirit. The word asceticism has fallen into disrepute, but I think the rehabilitation of the word might come from seeing its healing purpose.

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Letter 22,” The Screwtape Letters in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 249.

[2] Peter of Damascus, “A Treasury of Divine Knowledge” in The Philokalia (Boston, Faber & Faber, 1984), 3.156.

[3] Maximus the Confessor, Four Centuries on Charity [400 Chapters on Love], trans. Polycarp Sherwood, OSB (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1955), 4.15.

[4] Ibid., 1.79.

[5] Evagrius, “Introductory Letter to Anatolius” in The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Etudes Bamberger, OSCO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 14.

[6] Ibid., 65.

Featured Photo: Fanny Bergamaschi; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


David Fagerberg

David W. Fagerberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent publication is a collection of essays on liturgical theology over the years: The Liturgical Cosmos

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