“Woe to you Lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear” (Lk 11:46). Sometimes I feel like one of those lawyers, when I talk about the ascetic aspects of the Orthodox life: fasting, prayers, disciplines, rules, rules, rules. Pharisees and Lawyers are where you find them. Just because I am an Orthodox Christian doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of the Jews two millennia ago can’t apply to me. Do I load men with burdens hard to bear?
I hope not. May God teach me not to load others with hard burdens.
One of the principles I have tried to keep in mind when I try to discern how to apply the ascetic teaching of the church in my life (and in advising others) is based on these words of Jesus in John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” In practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church both principles must be kept in mind. On the one hand, ascetic practice weakens the flesh, for it “profits nothing.” Fasting, bowing, prostrations, long services, sacrificial giving, all of these practices work to weaken the flesh. Flesh here refers not to our physical bodies, but to the dynamic at work in our bodies and minds that makes us want what we want when we want it, the dynamic that makes our bodily desires and fantasies seem so important. By making our body worship God through attending services, bowing, fasting and generally saying “no,” we weaken the flesh dynamic within ourselves which in turn helps us pay attention to the Spirit who gives life.
However, this is not automatic. That is, just because someone fasts strictly or says long prayers or gives generously does not mean that they will automatically pay attention to the life-giving Spirit. It is possible to be loaded with hard burdens of religious observance and not experience the Spirit who gives life. The various religious leaders that Jesus rebukes in the Gospels are examples. It is a frightening possibility to consider that I may be suffering from the same malady, that I too might to some extent be a white-washed tomb.
A lot, I think, depends on how one fasts and prays and gives alms. Not how in the sense of strict conformity to the rules, but how in the sense of paying attention to the life-giving Spirit. Yes, ascetic struggle should be struggle–we are weakening the flesh. However, ascetic struggle should also be life giving; and if it is not, then I think one needs to consider the possibility that some of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees and Lawyers may apply to them.
This is especially true for priests. My job is to help people open up/pay attention to the Spirit who gives life. Teaching people to practice the ascetic disciplines of the Church is a necessary part of this process. And yet I must be careful. It is so much easier for me to teach rules than to prayerfully discern what brings someone Life.
But this is not just the calling of priests. All of us must be filled with the Spirit, all of us must find what brings life. As we start thinking about the Nativity fast that is to begin soon, perhaps we can all put a little more effort into finding life in this period of stricter asceticism. For, after all, it is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing.