The Role of Askesis in Orthodox Christian Formation
The Eastern Fathers through the centuries affirm that askesis—struggle and training in spiritual life—is integral to Christian growth, life, and maturity. It is a part of the Church’s basic mindset regarding growth in life in Christ. Within the US Orthodox Christian Education (OCE) field, however, no substantial treatment of this theme exists. The place of a discussion of askesis within OCE requires that one perceive how vitally and expansively the Orthodox Church understands this theme. Clearing lesser things from the heart, preparing room for divinity, learning to turn the eyes of the heart toward Christ, and to fix them on Him in all things are all vital to acquiring the Holy Spirit, whose fruit in us proclaims and brings about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christian witness presupposes fruit, while fruit is born of divine indwelling. Yet, as Gregory of Nyssa affirms, grace “does not naturally frequent souls which are fleeing from salvation.” We must engage. If spiritual maturity is important to the Church’s witness, then, so is developing maturity. In this way, askesis is integral to the mission of the Church. The Eastern Fathers understand this training in expansive ways. While askesis can indicate a subset of specific practices (vigils, fasting, chastity, etc.) in a larger sense it indicates active formation in spiritual life in general. Various Fathers affirm things as diverse as prayer, marriage, faith, childrearing, and patient endurance of suffering as opportunities for askesis. Since askesis is vital to Orthodox Christian life and faith, and given the gap in coverage, this study explores the theme, in three steps. First, after surveying recent OCE engagements with askesis, it considers in depth the spiritual anthropology and ascetical teaching of a relatively early figure, Gregory of Nyssa. Second, it explores three themes from the Byzantine period that display some of the Church’s broader, more settled sensibilities regarding askesis, namely, 1) the centrality of Jesus Christ in developing virtue and maturity; 2) the importance of the Church and Sacraments for spiritual growth; and 3) how material creation figures in spiritual life. Third, the study turns to the voices of more recent elders as they convey the Church’s expansive understanding of askesis. Again, three themes are developed: 1) how each and every aspect of human nature must be formed in Christ; 2) how, in God’s providence, the entire arena of life provides opportunities for Christian development; and 3) the ascetic character of an Orthodox Christian vision of education. This study is not a historical work of Christian spirituality, a history of the development of ascetical theology, or a comprehensive summary of its theme. Rather, it seeks to specify key elements of the developmental path to freedom in Christ proclaimed by the Orthodox faith, and to argue for their wisdom and fruitfulness. It aims to be a useful tool for those engaged in the task of forming the faithful. A final chapter summarizes implications in this regard.