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The Obstacle is the Way, Pt. 4


I have a love/hate relationship with doing hard things. No one can attest to this more than my wife, who has been by my side as I’ve wrestled with challenges. I envy her willingness to do anything with no questions about it, as I’m what you might call an over thinker. Prior to a challenge I spend hours researching, reading, and planning for whatever may come. The night before is the worst. Cecily has put up with my tossing and turning prior to running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or some other adventure that we’ve cooked up together. Interestingly, I have a track record of developing “issues” prior to something of this nature: random injuries, diarrhea, heart palpitations. She, on the other hand, faces the unknown with the callousness of one heading to the grocery store for bread and milk. Yet the result is the same; I just suffer more. I’d like to think that means I grow more, but that’s beyond the scope of my research for my Master’s degree.

Doing hard things for spiritual growth is not a new concept. Christians have experienced unwelcome stress in the form of physical persecution and suffering throughout history, but elective stress has also served as a valuable tool to those who seek to be formed into the image of Christ. Monastic and ascetic communities are two Christian communities pursuing elective stress. Asceticism conveys the idea that deliberate actions are required to achieve such a result, rather than assuming such formation is achieved in a single act. The monastic movement grew out of some Christians’ desires to avoid distractions from within a community in order to work out their salvation without interruption.[1] Monastic Christians saw their actions as a means to an end and not as a good in and of itself.[2]

History records that Christians engaged in various forms of asceticism as early as the second century.[3] Some examples include Justin Martyr noting a group of Christian men and women who lived together in chastity, Roman cleric Eusebius being the first bishop in the West to impose chastity and community life on his clergy, and monasteries growing across Italy.[4]

In the fourth century, Augustine took a vow of chastity following his mystical experience in A.D. 386 and produced a rule for a monastic community around 397.[5] He intended the community to “have one heart and soul seeking God,” reflecting the call of the apostles to the earliest Christians in Acts 2:44 and 4:32 to have everything in common.[6]

The Rule of Saint Benedict is a well-known example of asceticism. Containing seventy-three chapters, Benedict’s Rule is characterized by humility and calls for a balance between prayer and manual labor.[7] Benedict’s words suggest that his rule is not a punishment for evil bodies but a way to “return by labor of obedience to the one from whom you drifted through the inertia of disobedience.”[8] By regulating work, worship, and prayer, one would be free from distractions from God.[9]

Another example of monastic tradition comes from Brother Lawrence, who provides an example of the relationship between a structure of personal and corporate ascetic living—a bodily denial of self—and growth through ascetic disciplines for the mind. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century lay brother at a Carmelite monastery in Paris, is widely known for his portrayal of his relationship with God in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Lawrence, who spent years completing kitchen duties in the monastery, had a life-altering encounter with God while working that resulted in a deep understanding that the sole purpose of life before God is the love of God.[10] Lawrence asserts that a Christian’s only concern should be to live a life that pleases God, which St. Claire suggests is accomplished by practicing awareness of the present moment.[11] Presence is “the bare awareness of the receptive spaciousness of our mind.”[12] This is the focus of Lawrence’s approach to spirituality: an invitation to pause throughout the day to consider God and ask him to accept one’s work. Lawrence describes his pursuit as “nothing but how to become wholly God’s.”[13]

While ascetic practices have been implemented in a variety of ways throughout Christian history, not all have been healthy. In the New Testament, imagery exists that could be misinterpreted as a foundation for abuse of the body. For example, in Hebrews 9:22, the blood of Christ reconciles people to God and it is participation in Christ’s blood that sets the believer in right relationship to God. Yet while the martyrs faced death with the faithfulness of Christ, the self-inflicted shedding of a believer’s blood does not open significant channels of communication between God and the individual. Modern psychology suggests that repeated self-wounding can be a sign of personality disorder.[14] Furthermore, these examples represent a theology of the body that requires its elimination, rather than its formation: an oppression of the evil flesh.

Mortification of the flesh has ascetic ties and has been a theme in Christianity resulting in “epidemics of self-mutilation, notably the flagellants of the fourteenth century.”[15] Christian history also records extremes such as Saint Margaret-Mary Alacoque filling her mouth with the diarrhea of a sick man and cleaning up the vomit of another with her tongue, or Saint Angela of Fuligno drinking the dirty water after washing the feet of lepers. These examples were done in an effort to overcome the desires or fears of the flesh.[16] Such extremes should prompt readers to be cautious when encountering examples of abusing the body found even in spiritual classics. The form of these spiritual disciplines should be should be challenged if the body is to serve spiritual formation.

The wisdom of the ascetic tradition for elective stress practices

Elective stress for spiritual growth is grounded in the belief that the flesh can be a tool for deeper communion with Christ: the body is not the enemy of spiritual growth, but in fact is a helper. Historically the church has wrestled with this this interplay between the flesh and spirituality. Contemporary theologian Thomas Ryan writes:

In certain eras of Christian History, the body was ignored; in others, denied. In our ear, it is glorified. In different periods of history, Christians have been variously exhorted to mortify their bodies and punish themselves, to control their bodily appetites perceived as hindrances to spiritual development, and to transcend their bodies so as to live in a purely spiritual way. The challenge before us in a secular culture that idolizes the body is not to overcompensate for centuries of misguided teachings – Paul said, “Glorify God in your body,” not “Glorify your body” – but to find a balance between idolatry and denial, between mortification and glorification.[17]

Finding this balance between viewing the body as evil and the opposite extreme of idolization is critical to understanding how to utilize the flesh for spiritual disciplines. Healthy ascetic practice, and elective stress, assume the body has a role in the spiritual disciplines as a means of conforming to Christ, rather than viewing discipline as a way to overcome one’s evil flesh. While the ascetic tradition provides some examples of abuse of the body, there is also a strong tradition grounded in scripture that employs physical challenge outside one’s everyday experience and beyond one’s sense of self-efficacy as a means of spiritual formation. Elective stress aligns with the Christian tradition that seeks to employ the body and physical effort in progress toward the image of Christ and stands in contrast to unhealthy forms of asceticism which suggest that the flesh is an evil that needs to be conquered.

For some, participating in elective stress is a lifestyle which has yet to cross over into the spiritual discipline realm. You may be thinking, I already do marathons/climb mountain/embrace challenges. Others may regularly engage in traditional ascetic practices (fasting, celibacy, etc), but may be looking for a modern twist. To both communities, I’d say elective stress as a spiritual discipline is for you. In my next and final blog post in this series, I’ll lay out a structured practice for engaging in elective stress for spiritual growth as a form of new monasticism which offers the opportunity to increase depth of faith utilizing practices that are relevant to modern lifestyles.

And no, you don’t need to put diarrhea in your mouth.

[1] Robert H. Von Thaden, “Glorify God in Your Body: The Redemptive Role of the Body in Early Christian Ascetic Literature,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 38.2 (2003), 205.

[2] Ibid., 201.

[3] Marilyn Dunn, Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 59.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Greg Peters, “The Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care. 1.1 (2008), 107.

[8] Von Thaden, 205.

[9] Ibid., 205.

[10] W. David Buschart, “Brother Lawrence (1611-1691),” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, eds. Glen G. Scorgie, Simon Chan, Gordon T. Smith, and James D. Smith, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011), 320.

[11] Elizabeth St. Claire, “Bringing Mindfulness and Brother Lawrence Together: Clinical Implications for the Modern Christian” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2016), 72.

[12] St. Claire, 73.

[13] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Urbana: Project Gutenberg, 2004), 28.

[14] Digby Tantam and Jane Whittaker, “Personality Disorder and Self-Wounding,” The British Journal of Psychiatry 161.4 (1992), 451.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Anthony Synnott, “Tomb, Temple, Machine and Self: The Social Construction of the Body,” British Journal of Sociology 43.1 (1992), 91.

[17] Thomas Ryan, Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), 92.

#spiritualdisciplines #electivestress

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