Intro: áskesis and physical/spiritual training

We look back to the ancient Christian practice of asceticism for inspiration. Asceticism and athleticism both come from the same Greek word for training.

All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.1 Cornin. 9:25

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We draw our inspiration for PraXis from the ancient Christian tradition of asceticism, a tradition practiced by early Christians. Asceticism is practiced by spiritual people all around the world. The practice typically involves things like fasting, vigils and forms of meditation or what Christians call contemplation or contemplative prayer.  Christian monks, nuns, and all Eastern Church Christians still practice asceticism today. Asceticism has a bad reputation because it’s largely misunderstood in the West. Some people see it as a form of self-punishment, where you starve yourself, or sleep on a bed of nails. There are extreme forms of it to be sure, but the oldest Christian traditions used modest asceticism as a way of turning attention away from our bodies and towards God. The point is not to punish oneself, but to do three things:

  • incorporate fitness, diet and mindfulness practices into our prayer life
  • evoke the spiritual practices of the earliest church
  • turn our attention to God

Asceticism and athleticism come from the same Greek word áskesis meaning training. Athleticism is a training of the body and asceticism is a training for the soul. Both require a series of self-imposed challenges in order to build strength. The spiritual training tradition in ancient Christianity comes from, in part, from quotes like the one above in 1 Corinthians. 

The earliest church battled over how much asceticism was too much. Some early Christian communities, like those in Asia Minor, were chastised by the Church for being too ascetic. Starting with Anthony the Great and the Desert Father and Mothers these early ascetic communities gradually turned into the monks, nuns, and hermits of today. But, in the earliest Church, fasting and some level of asceticism was expected of all Christians. Today, Orthodox Christians still practice varying levels of fasting, and asceticism, though not near the levels found in monastics.

In PraXis, we are doing physical and spiritual áskesis. But we are not training to be monastic ascetics or Olympic athletes.  Moderation is key. And it’s important to remember this is not a salvific issue. You are not going to Hell if you don’t do your pushups or eat vegan food on Friday, but you might stay on Earth and enjoy your little longer.

With anything in PraXis there may be some discomfort as you begin to push yourself into doing something new, or physically and mentally strenuous. So, as a martial arts instructor once told us, if it hurts remember this Rule of Pain and Progress:

The first time you feel it, ignore it and keep going
The second time you feel it, pay attention to it, but keep going
The third time you feel it, stop and rest

LEARN MORE:

Learn most about Christian Diet AKA fasting.
Learn about contemplation or Christian Mindfulness.
Christian exercise?

Published by Cornelius Swart

Masters Candidate, Vancouver School of Theology

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