What is Ascetical Theology?

Benedict of Nursia wrote that a monastic must have three intentional qualities of life in devotion to God: stabilitas , obedientia , and conversio morem. These behaviors — no, relationship-bearing vows — are what anchor a person to an ascetic life. One must be in a consistent church body home in which there is accountability and vulnerability. Douglas Burton-Christie said that “cultivating attachment to a place involves a personal response. It means entering into relationships of mutual commitment and responsibility, becoming part of a community.” One must also be under the obedience of, in Benedict’s understanding, an abbot; this submission allows the potential destruction of those human, sin-filled aspects of a man that causes separation from God. FP Harton said that “love issues in obedience, and obedience is the exercise of love.” St. Josemaria Escriva instructs, “If obedience does not give peace, you have pride.” Quite a convicting barb, St. Escriva! Finally, Benedict understood that one should be converted daily to the will of God and should put to death every shadow of our human existence that is not of God. “This realization of your own unworthiness will drive out of your heart all unreasonable interest in other people’s affairs and criticism of their actions, and will compel you to l look at yourself alone, as though there were no one in existence but God and yourself,” Walter Hilton, The Ladder of Perfection.

Anglican spirituality is a distinct expression of our passion for God in terms of how we enter God’s presence and reside within His mercy. It grew from the New Testament church and from the reflections of St. Augustine. There are three ways that Anglicans typically worship: through the partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the weekly Eucharist, through the order of the Daily Office, and through personal prayers. These behaviors infuse our lives with the Creator and offer an opportunity for constant and consistent communion, both literally and metaphorically. Martin Thornton stated that there are six characteristics of Anglicanism: consistency in balancing piety with learning, insistence on the unity of the whole church, unique humanism in which extremism is avoided, a grounding of theology in both Holy Scripture and the BCP, a desire for habitual recollection of God’s love, and a longing for spiritual direction. These characteristics seek to offer boundaries for our daily life and give us cause for our work, study, and prayer.

How, then, do we live as a monastic and under Benedict’s Rule if we are not physically in a monastery? The answer: We may even still commit our life to the ascetic movement seeking always to live in community, obedience, and Divine conversation. Regarding the first of Benedict’s rule of work, FP Harton said in The Elements of the Spiritual Life, “Adoration passes over into life and makes every action, no matter how secular or commonplace, an act of worship, directed, not only to the practical end in view, but primarily to the service of God.” Within work there is a yearning to return to God in prayer. However, it is just in those moments that we are able to see God in the work and the yearning is satisfied. Additionally, Martin Thornton said, “Christian perfection may be found in divine contemplation but it may also be achieved in the faithful performance of the ordinary duties of everyday life, the truth which Brother Lawrence was later to make so familiar and which Hilton expresses in the warning to people not to tend God’s head and neglect his feet.”

Regarding Benedict’s second rule of study, Padre Pio said, “In books we see God, in prayer we find him.” We experience the resonance of God in study; we see evidence of His work within the lives and actions of others, and we recognize that proof of Him. Harton said, “Love is always accompanied by knowledge.” With knowledge comes understanding and awareness; love grows in the awareness because our hungry soul is nourished. Escriva said in The Way, “It’s good for you to put such determination into your study, as long as you put the same determination into acquiring interior life.” In this Escriva instructs us to have balance. It is easy for us to focus on the tangibility of studies against the intangible and, at times, frustrating interior life during its dark nights. Further, Escriva offers, “Study. Obedience. Non multa, sed multum — not many things, but well.”

Regarding the final rule from Benedict of prayer, in “The Dance of the 13 Veils” Fr. John-Julian stated, “It is only when one makes a relentless and unswervingly concrete commitment to prayer that it becomes possible for God even to begin to act significantly in that life.” Also, Walter Hilton reflected in Ladder, “Devote all your energies to prayer, so that your soul may come to a real perception of God; that is, that you may come to know the wisdom of God, the infinite might of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His great goodness in Himself and towards His creatures.” Make no mistake, prayer and the interior life are anything but simple, but there is a simplicity and purity in breathing for prayer. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “Your prayer then will be a rhythmic movement of all your powers, moving into the divine presence in contemplation and moving into the needs of the people in intercession. In contemplation you will reach the peace and stillness of God’s eternity, in intercession you will reach into the rough and tumble of the world of time and change.” Finally, Thomas Merton offered, “Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of His word, for knowledge of His will, and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is thus something much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our own deepest concerns.”

For Anglican Asceticism, it seems that Walter Hilton joined these two topics well in The Ladder of Perfection: “So whatever form of prayer, meditation, or activity leads you to the highest and deepest experience of Him, will be the means by which you may best seek and find Him.” As Anglicans we are to seek Him in community through our corporate prayers and our requests to the community of saints on our behalf. We are to understand and acknowledge “our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” and to recognize that when we approach the Table of the Mass we are not “trusting in our own righteousness [… and] we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [His] table.” We are also to “go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” As Ascetics we long to live and breathe in the Holy One; as Anglicans we choose intentionality in our worship and liturgy which brings us to God’s throne of grace.

Choose an individual or time period which you feel is important in the development of Ascetics/Christian Spirituality.

Within the medieval years of the 1300s, the church was “sated with worldliness and honeycombed with corruption” and “the Catholic Church [was] watching for a spiritual awakening.”

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