The Social Nature of Ascetic Hesychasm – ΙΙ

27 March 2015

In this ascetic, existential contradiction  we encounter the internal balance on which rests the firmest of foundations of healthy sociability. Often enough, technically-minded people, who boast of their sociability, do not experience any internal social balance. Since they’re unilaterally sociable, that is, intensely extrovert, they’re absorbed into the social whole and thus lose their individuality. So how can people who are socially fragmented experience genuine love for their neighbour, since they’ve lost their own internal unity? If they do what they do simply to appear good and for no other reason at all than sociability, how can they externalize spontaneous feelings of love? The way in which the relevant anthropological sciences underline the tightly-sealed isolation which people today often experience, betrays the quality of the content of the social behaviour of these people. It’s only the experience of one’s own individuality, as the experience of spiritual unity and poise, that can create and maintain real social behaviour. People who are fractured and internally splintered by a variety of psychological conflicts can’t express themselves socially, because they can’t “meet”  the social whole and can’t engage in dialogue with its individual human units.

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Even though he lives far from other people, the ascetic of the desert, on the other hand, with his internal “social” balance, is engulfed with love towards his neighbour. “We know”, says Saint Isaac, “that without love of one’s neighbour the nous cannot be enlightened through speech or divine love”. The demand for union with God is a demand for “society” since it concerns the experience of the outstanding interpersonal relationship, that with the Triune God.  Thus, within the spiritual environment of this society, love for one’s neighbour is a vital presence. In any case, how could an ascetic experience  such a society by himself? If he were really cut off from his brother, then his nous could not “be enlightened through speech or divine love”. This is why the ascetic loves his neighbour unaffectedly and, in the desert where he lives, expresses real sociability.

Practical love for one’s neighbour is expressed first and foremost through support with the basic problem of life: the experience of guilt. “Do not hate the sinner, for we are all responsible. And if, for God, you move towards him, pray for him”. And not only that, but “spread your garment over the miscreant and cover him”. And if, continues Saint Isaac, your aren’t able to take his sins upon yourself, and experience the shame of guilt on his behalf, at least don’t look down on him, because he’s your brother. The ascetic in the desert considers that, in inter-personal and inter-human relations, we should show deep and unaffected love which is capable of covering our neighbour’s every weakness. So if you love, you do not merely benefit your neighbour, but at the same time you heal your own soul. But if you condemn him, you rub salt into the wounds.

In this ascetic thought, modern people can see the dynamic aspect of love. Love here isn’t an emotional outburst with a passive character or actively neutral. It is, above all, a dynamic, mutual relationship the specific feature of which is that the more it’s expressed the more it heals itself. If you know how to respect the weakness of your brother, you start with a direct experience of self-respect. As long as you’re kind towards him, “your own wickedness is healed”. This is precisely where the constructive value of the inter-personal relationship is firmly underlined: spiritual progress is possible only with social reciprocity. Even if you’re isolated in the harshest desert, you can’t be cut off from the experience of the brotherly love which is constructive and instructive. So long as this fraternal love does not interrupt your converse with God. In every other case, the desert ascetic cannot but express his deep affection for the society of his neighbour.

The attitude of the ascetic towards brotherly love is not at all a lesson for others. The ascetic in the desert doesn’t extol this love in order to urge others to seek it while he himself remains enclosed in his total quietude. “Many of these (ascetics) gave their bodies to wild animals, the sword or fire for their neighbour”. So in many ascetic narratives we’re presented with an indescribable and astonishing wealth of vibrant fraternal love.

Abba Agathon was well-known for his displays of brotherly love and couldn’t rest if he was unable to do anything of benefit to his neighbour. He would have done anything for his brother: “I wanted to find a cripple, take his body and give him mine”. “Have you seen perfect love?”.

The ascetic fathers relate how Saint Makarios visited a sick brother and while he was there asked him if he needed anything. The sick man replied: “A little soft bread”. In the monastic brotherhood to which the man belonged, they baked bread once for the whole year and it seems the invalid couldn’t deal with the hard rusks. “At once, the worthy man arose and, although ninety years old started out from the skete of the sick brother and made his way to Alexandria. When he had exchanged the hard bread for soft, he brought it, again on foot, to the sick monk”. This demonstrates perfectly the core of the ascetic life.

Of Abba Agathon, “a man more experienced than any other monk of his time, who honoured silence and quietude above all things” they told the following story: When the time came for a fair in the town next to his skete, the saint went to sell his handiwork to buy his dry rusks for the year. But he happened to meet in the market “a stranger, abandoned and ill”. He seized the opportunity to demonstrate his wealth of brotherly love and took the man under his protection. He rented a place to live and gave him shelter, seeing to his every need to bring him back to health as quickly as possible. At the same time he worked “with his own hands” to meet the costs of this support for the invalid. And in six months the man regained his health and the saint returned to his life of quietude. “This is perfect love”.

Finally, Saint Isaac, in a letter of his, recalls that one of the ascetic fathers taught that nothing could release a monk from the demon of pride and lust other than carrying out some “social” mission. In other words, a monk who looks after the sick and those “who are deep in the sorrow of the flesh” performs the equivalent of many ascetic efforts that would be necessary to stop the evil one from bothering him.

And there are many other narratives and occurrences in the monastic state that show that monastic perfection is expressed wonderfully in love for one’s neighbour. Indeed, this love, as a practical experience, is a criterion for perfection. “This is proof of those who have reached perfection. Even if they are cast into the fire ten times a day for the love of other people, it is not enough for them”.

So the superficial anti-social isolation of the ascetic life is the humble outer garment which covers an incomparable spiritual beauty. The spiritual depth of the exercise and the harshest form of “extreme isolation” is an experience of brotherly love which is born of the mystical union with God, Who is complete and infinite Love.

Ioannis Kornarakis, «Ανταύγειες της Πατερικής ερήμου μέσα στο σύγχρονο κόσμο», εκδ. Π. Πουρναρά, [Highlights of Patristic Desert in modern world, ed. P. Pournaras] Thessaloniki, pp. 41-50.