Got askesis envy? Advice from a desert monk

In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is enriched by the memory of the most celebrated monastics of Christian memory–St. Andrew of Crete (who got his start as a hierarch and hymnographer in a monastery near Jerusalem), St. John of the Ladder, and St. Mary of Egypt, to name a few.  

Surrounded by these virtuous souls, it’s easy for even our most hard-won Lenten efforts to be consumed by a hefty dose of what I like to call “askesis envy.” (Askesis, in Orthodox circles, refers to spiritual self-discipline or training, strengthened by practices like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.)

Askesis envy occurs when we start looking at what everyone else is up to and adopt an almost covetous attitude towards their ascetical practices. It’s the very antithesis of the attitude we should be cultivating, but it’s something that afflicts many of us from time to time. If we’re not careful, this time of grace in the Church can quickly deteriorate into a time of legalism, insecurity, and over-extension as we endlessly take on more than we can handle in an effort to finally measure up.

Recently I found a helpful corrective to askesis envy in an unlikely place (or rather not so unlikely, if you’ve been reading this blog recently): Evagrius’ ascetical treatise, Praktikos.

Himself a desert monk, here’s what Evagrius wrote more than a millennium and a half ago:

Our holy and most ascetic master stated that the monk should always live as if he were to die on the morrow but at the same time that he should treat his body as if he were to live on with it for many years to come. (Praktikos 29)[1]

Basically: live like you’re going to die tomorrow, take care of your body so that it will live for many more years.

The advice did not originate with Evagrius but instead with the “most ascetic master” he references, likely Macarius of Egypt. Indeed it’s possible Macarius gave this advice to a younger Evagrius in personal consultation—Macarius was one of his teachers, and we know that Evagrius suffered from a number of digestive issues, which some have speculated were exacerbated by intense fasting.[2]

This is by far not the only instance where Evagrius advises moderation in the ascetical life, particularly with regard to the body. His warning is an important one to ponder as we enter into this first week of Great Lent.  

Time, Short and Long

Latent in this advice is an interesting temporal tension, even a contradiction, between short- and long-term perceptions of time.

Putting ourselves in the monk’s stead, on the one hand, we are to live as if we will die tomorrow. This requires a short-term view of time that perceives life with the utmost urgency and clarity. As 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson once wrote, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Evagrius went on to explain that this view of things helps people “cut off” distracting thoughts, specifically those of despondency (Praktikos 29).

That a sense of urgency can serve to counter despondency isn’t surprising–earlier in his treatise, Evagrius had taught that despondency elongates a monk’s sense of time, making it seem as though “the day is fifty hours long” (Pr. 12). Adopting a more immediate sense of time could counter this, preventing someone from getting so sucked into the slog of acedia so they can be more fervent in prayer and other ascetic practices (Pr. 29).

… But not so fervent that they disregard the needs and natural limitations of their body. For with regard to our bodies, we are to adopt a long-term perspective, as though they will be around for a long time.

The point here isn’t to assume the body will last forever regardless of how poorly you treat it, but rather to treat the body well so that “liv[ing] on with it,” as Evagrius put it, will not be a torture. The objective is for the monk to “preserve his body in good health” (Pr. 29).  

And so, these two views of time and life balance one another out–the short-term view cultivates energy and clarity, the long-term view guards against excess (given the context of his writing, Evagrius was most likely addressing overly zealous asceticism, but his mandate could also apply the excesses of hedonism and self-indulgence).

And somehow, we are to hold these two perceptions in our minds “at the same time,” according to the saying (Pr. 29).  

Applying this to our Lenten journey

The advice Evagrius passes on to us from his own teacher speaks with more appreciation for the body and its needs than we tend to associate with famed desert monastics. We picture them out there in the wilderness, fasting for days (or years, as with St. Mary of Egypt) on end, the flesh wasting away off their bones. Our own attempts at holiness seem to pale by comparison.

How accurate is this perspective? And how accurate are the comparisons that drive our own bouts with askesis envy?

Evagrius’ words remind us that fasting isn’t about outward rules and appearances. It’s about prayer, and leaning into it to cultivate true repentance and seek forgiveness.

To do this, we must treat the body as though to preserve it for many years to come–so that we can go on living–and praying–as though we will die tomorrow. What a paradox!

 

Sources:

[1] John Eudes Bamberger, Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer (1972).[2] Columba Steward OSB, “Evagrius Ponticus on Monastic Pedagogy,” in John Behr et al., Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West (SVS Press, 2003), 241-71, here 249.

One comment:

  1. I am spending an unusual lent; my son was born on clean Monday and will be baptized on Lazarus Saturday. That means I will miss all of the Lenten services, and I do not have a blessing to fast. So far I have had time to pray and read, which is a blessing. I am trying to trust God to bring me closer to Him this lent even though the practices I rely upon aren’t available to me.

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