Asceticism for the Postmodern Sinner

I can’t believe that I was so easily taken in. I never expected this sort of thing to happen to me.

It all began so innocently. When a coworker left our psychology practice a while ago, I was told that I might do some basic cognitive rehabilitation with some of my patients who already had started this work with her.

I knew that games are sometimes used as “homework” when someone is trying to recover or strengthen cognitive skills that have suffered because of strokes or other brain injuries.

Recalling a website I had visited years ago, I searched for it again to see if it might be a resource. With its generous offering of games that tapped into a variety of cognitive skills, I thought I might allow some of my patients to peruse the site, given that there is a fee for full access.

So far so good.

Naturally, I needed to try out some of the games myself first. Many new games had been added in the years since I had last been to the website – and I recognized a couple of old favorites.

Some of them, I found, were not so easy for this aging brain of mine.

“I bet I can do better if I just play it again,” I told myself after a disappointing first performance on one such game.

And, of course, that was true. Understanding the task better, practicing it and developing new strategies improved my scores across the board.

The website offers an opportunity to view your stats and how they compare with others your age who are part of their large community of players. Given that no data are provided regarding the abilities or disabilities of the other players, such comparisons are essentially meaningless. Still, I found it kind of fun.

Though a bit discouraged at first with my rather mediocre percentiles comparing me to agemates, there was some enjoyment watching myself climb higher as I practiced the games more.

This was my first real warning sign. But I did not see it as such.

Or perhaps I didn’t want to see it as such.

After all, especially for someone my age, brain exercise is as healthy a practice as physical exercise. So I’m doing a good thing, right?

Perhaps I was spending a bit more time on it than I should. But it was not as though I spent hours on it every day.

Yet on those days when I spent more time on the games than I intended, particularly when I had more important things to do, this little voice inside would nag, “What have you really accomplished here?”

But I would shrug it off. After all, I was exercising my brain and that is a good thing. And I was decompressing from work, also a good thing.

Nothing wrong with that.

Then why am I writing about it? (And what does this have to do with asceticism?)

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I have noticed, as you may have, that God has had me on sabbatical from writing here. Longer gaps between posts, wanting to write for Him but hearing few promptings from within.

And then there were promptings that were never pursued because I was tired, busy or just not in the right place mentally or spiritually to write.

I haven’t felt “in trouble” spiritually. I have persisted with prayer and spiritual reading. Despite my dullness, I have observed God continuing to work in me and through me.

But during these unscheduled sabbaticals, I often wonder why – why has God pulled me off the writing circuit? And, more nervously, I wonder if one of these times (perhaps this time?) He is not going to return me to writing at all.

Of course, He is in charge. Should He say, “Stop writing”, I would stop. Without question or delay. I know I cannot write without HIm.

By myself, there is nothing worth writing. Disobedience cannot even been considered on this matter.

However, it occurred to me in the last couple of weeks that perhaps God had pressed me into compositional silence because there were things He knew I needed to learn.

Yet, if I didn’t know what those things were, what was I to do?

Well, for one, I had to assume my rightful role as student, not pretending to be a teacher. In addition, I had to pray – and then wait for Him to show me what He wanted me to see.

And last night, He did. I had just settled into the spot on the floor where I go to pray in the dark – and there it was.

I am addicted to those stupid games.

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I realize that this may sound like an exaggeration. What, I’m playing some brain exercise games for a half an hour or so every day? Hardly the making of an “addiction”.

I know, I know. But stay with me and I think you will understand what I mean.

For I realized last night, while sitting before my God in the dark, that it is not the games themselves that draw me to waste my time with them. They are not that much fun.

Yet, in recent weeks, I have found myself looking forward to them with a certain excitement every day. If I didn’t get to them, I felt as though I had missed something. Why?

Interestingly, I decided in the last week or two, for reasons not clearly formed in my mind, that I was going to fast from them on Fridays. The decision felt surprisingly difficult. And I wondered why I felt a need to fast from them.

God was laying the groundwork for me to see what I didn’t want to see.

No, it was not the games themselves that were addicting. It was the numbers.

From the beginning, it wasn’t just my previous score I had to beat. It was those other 60-64 year olds who also played, unseen by me, reflected in the percentiles.

I was addicted to trying to prove that I was smarter than they were. (Ugh. No wonder I didn’t want to see this in myself.)

As I reflected on this inner revelation, I realized that this is the stuff of addiction. Whether it is the next drink, the next drug high, the next sexual escapade, the next meal or the next wager, there is a common pattern: a heightening tension in the approach, followed by a release at attaining the sought-after pleasure.

Unless, of course, you don’t attain it – in which case you must try again. And, of course, if you did attain it, you must try to sustain or exceed the previous high.

And so my sense of excited anticipation to play games, followed by the pleasure of watching myself rise in the percentiles. Even if I had work to do. Even if I was tired and needed to go to bed.

It doesn’t take that long. It’s good exercise for my brain, right?

There’s no sin in that, is there?

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Well, actually…

This is not the place for public confession, of course. But it is a place for sharing lessons.

I often forget how crafty our adversary can be, taking something that is neutral or even of positive value, and leading us into corruption without us even recognizing that it has happened.

Before my eyes were opened, something inside (I suspect it was the Holy Spirit ) whispered to me that I needed to fast from this seemingly innocuous game-playing.

And the very fact that the fast felt difficult was telling.

“Is there any person, experience or possession that I would not give up for you, O my Savior?”

I like to imagine that I can say no – no, there is nothing I would not give up for Him. Nothing is or ever can be more important to me than Him.

This is readily proclaimed in the abstraction of prayerful inquiry, safely hypothetical because nothing has been demanded, no struggle or true sacrifice has been required.

Like the rich young man in the Gospel, I may tell myself that I have been completely faithful – and believe it – until the critical moment comes and I actually have to relinquish what I have been secretly clinging to.

It may be food, pride, sex, wealth – any of the passions. The passions themselves are not inherently evil, of course. And the enemy makes sure to remind of us this.

It is only when I cling to my passions and make excuses for them that they become like massive boulders obstructing the path. The path between my heart and God.

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The postmodern world we live in is one that rejects the notion of any objective or universal Truth – all is relative. We are a collection of individuals, each seeking and finding our own truths.

Whatever truths we find ought to be respected in this culture-constructed world of ours. What is true for me may not be true for you and thus I must not “impose” my views on anyone else.

While there is some wisdom in the tolerance thus professed, the term “postmodern Christianity” is oxymoronic.

We who know Christ know Truth – and He is One, not many.

It is not for us to decide for ourselves the nature and boundaries of Truth. These have been revealed to us.

And this is good, for we know our own ideas have been infected by our passions and, left to our own devices, we will (and do) invent all sorts of excuses and accommodations for them.

Some who count themselves nonbelievers consider Christianity to be the source of all of our troubles – the intolerance, the hate, the disconnect between our beautiful universe and its inhabitants.

In their postmodern thinking, sin is only an invention of one of the world’s religions, developed to control people through guilt. According to this manner of thinking, sin is but a construct designed to justify judging others, often while hypocritically engaging in acts that are as bad or worse.

But we who have received Truth, read the Word of Truth, consumed the Flesh and Blood of Truth, know sin to be very real. It is not a cultural construct or a personal belief.

Sin is born of the passions that rise up in all people and, while Christians still fall victim to them, neither God nor the Church invented them.

No, they were among us from the beginning, innocent at first as were we, But then, under the influence of the tempter, we sought to make ourselves gods and they were innocent no longer.

+++

So here I am, a sinner living in a postmodern world that strives to convince me that my corrupted desires for self-gratification and self-glorification are normal and of no consequence – as long as I don’t bother anyone else.

Take away the negative labels and this is really not so hard to believe. After all, who did I hurt by my “addiction” to the brain games? No one even knew of it until I revealed it here.

The other 60-64 year olds who were playing the same games knew nothing of my existence nor of my striving to prove myself smarter than them. How could they be hurt?

(This, of course, is one of the more clever ways in which the evil one disguises his agenda: if I don’t see anyone being hurt, then no one is hurt. And if no one is hurt by an action or an attitude, there is nothing wrong with it.)

But, as a Christian sinner living in a postmodern world, I know otherwise.

The passions, if allowed to rule me, separate me from God. Apart from God, the Source of all life, I am headed toward death.

At the very least, I have hurt myself and grievously.

But can I realistically imagine that it stops here? That permitting the passions to dominate me in one way does not impact thoughts and actions that eventually bring harm to others?

Even quantum physics teaches us that we are more interconnected than that. We simply are more than a collection of individuals. Much more.

My seemingly minor “addiction” affects the whole – and in ways beyond my comprehension.

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It is no wonder that postmodernism is so readily embraced in today’s world. Having at our disposal the technology to learn of virtually every mode of evil and suffering occurring across the globe, to face our personal contributions to this is more than overwhelming.

And it would remain so, had we not been given the antidote.

When we come to know the One Who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, yes, we come to recognize the reality of sin. But we are also set on the only path that can free us from it.

The Lord Christ tells us that all we need do is believe in Him and the One Who sent Him. And thus it is so.

But what does it mean to believe?

Common usage (not to mention faith vs. works controversies) might lead us to regard it as a mere assent of the intellect. “Yes, this is true. I believe it.”

But when it comes to believing in Him, it must mean a great deal more. It is not just an idea or theory I choose to give credence to.

It is a person – no, the Person, the One Who embodies the one Truth that leads us from darkness into light, from death into life.

To believe in Him is to follow Him, to live His life, the life He gave us.

In one sense, this is very simple – for He lived a human life that we can follow and realistically imitate.

In another sense, however, to follow involves great struggle – for the passions are deeply imbedded in us and carefully disguised by our adversary.

As long as they rule, we must struggle, both for ourselves and for our world.

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The word “asceticism” has its origins in the Greek word, askesis, originally meaning simply “exercise”. It later carried the meanings of “a given way of life” or an “occupation”.

As the meaning of the word evolved, it came to be associated with monasticism and thus was regarded as a sort of “spiritual exercise” or “spiritual training”.

An ascetic is one who struggles. A fighter.*

In all of my years as a believer, I do not recall ever hearing anyone describe the Lord Jesus as an ascetic.  Perhaps, since we know the end of the story, we do not want to imagine Him having to undergo spiritual training or struggle against the passions.

But this is a disconnect on our part. Surely Scripture is replete with examples of the profound asceticism of the Christ.

Immediately after His baptism, He began His exercise, His training in the desert: a fast of 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus struggled as the adversary tried to stir His human passions. “Wouldn’t you like some bread?” he whispered to our hungry Lord.

“I can give you power and glory so easily”, he suggested, “just worship me and there will be no crucifixion required”, he implied. “Get the angels to come and rescue you from this suffering,” he tempted. (See Luke 4: 1-11)

Having thus entered His active ministry, Jesus states, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Matthew 8: 20)

Thus, to believe, to follow, to live the life of Christ, necessarily involves living an asceticism after the way of His.

And what is this Way of His asceticism? Must we starve ourselves and become homeless?

To assume this would be to miss the point entirely.

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The Way of Christ is the way of love.

Any self-imposed deprivations or sufferings not motivated by love are useless. They may even serve to further separate us from Him.

If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13: 3.)

The precise nature of our “exercise” is not prescribed by Scripture. While it may seem obvious that I need the most training in the areas where I am most weak, this is not necessarily where I ought to begin.

Certainly the struggle is greater with the passions that most frequently entrap me. And struggle with them I must.

Yet we should all begin with a fast from food at least a little, at least occasionally, unless specifically instructed otherwise by our spiritual father/mother/director. The Lord’s fast in the desert was His first victory and we must honor it by imitation (though not in literal detail). This is the teaching of the Church.

Essential to this remembrance is an awareness that the primary purpose of my fast is not to overcome gluttony (or any other passion). Rather, I fast because love beckons me to follow Him and to do as He did.

As I begin to fast out of love, He will indeed lead me to other “fasts”, other types of struggles to train me in the way of love.

This is what I believe occurred when the Spirit prompted me to fast from that which indulged my pride, though I did not understand it at the time. Before my conscious mind would acknowledge its sin, He was already saving me, pulling me back onto the path.

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Our postmodern world cannot comprehend this sort of fast.

A local religious ritual is understood and tolerated. An attempt to improve myself is well within bounds.

Were I to fast in an effort to purge my body of toxins and thus improve my health, the world would nod its approval. If I were to join a gym to get in shape, no one would look askance.

But my fast, the fast of the Church, is not simply to improve my lifestyle or even to purify my soul, though both may be secondary effects and beneficial to me.

To follow the Savior, to fast out of love for Him, is to be transformed by His life and made like Him.

And becoming like Him, we learn the way of love which pours out self for all.

We enter Eucharist, the ultimate fast that feeds others with His Love. We embrace the Cross, spreading our arms, opening our hands, holding onto nothing for ourselves.

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No, the world does not understand this – and neither do I.

So lost is my soul that the simplest little appeal to my ego has me wandering down trails unfit for a follower of our Savior.

But the Lord is gracious and merciful. He saves me from myself, taking me by the hand and drawing me back to His heart.

And now, in His goodness, He has permitted me to write and share with you what I have learned.

All glory and praise to Him forever. Amen.

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*See The Struggle For Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, by Archbishop Averky (Taushev).

2 thoughts on “Asceticism for the Postmodern Sinner

  1. albert

    Neither do I — wandering, but wondering too, amazed at grace that follows and, more often, I believe, leads. (Hi Mary. I’m reading–slowly.)

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