Asceticism is the branch of medicine that aims at healing the human soul which is eternal and reaching eternal personal perfection.
The need of God
No one can do this, because of this the good God has mercy on us and does this, but he needs the practical proof that we want this because in His delicacy he does not crush our freedom.
The commandments of God are not the expression of the chief vis-à-vis the subordinates, but the recipe for healing the human personality and reaching real happiness and love.
So, asceticism is a key part of Orthodox Spirituality. It is not a negative activity but a most positive one. It is the primary means by which we come closer to God. It involves the activities that help us perfect our way of life to be more like Christ.
Asceticism is the part of spirituality that deals with the rules and efforts that bring man to the first step of the ascent to perfection, to contemplation and union with God.
While our salvation depends of the grace of God which gives it as a gift, asceticism is the active part of the spiritual life. It is the effort that we must make in cooperation with God’s grace. It is not an option but a central part of responding to His grace so we can be perfected by it. God always leads but we must also follow.
Asceticism as an athletic competition
Saint Paul used the metaphor of an athletic competition to describe asceticism. He writes:
if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (Tim 2, 2:5)
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Ascetic efforts like obedience (the first and the hardest), prayer, fasting and repentance are what liberates us from sin. They fortify our true nature. They are all part of a most positive effort.
Based on fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, Saint Apostle Paul
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