Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Great Asceticism

There’s a fairly long section of the sayings of Amma Syncletica in my Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Here’s one “saying” of Amma Syncletica:

She also said, “If illness weighs us down, let us not be sorrowful as though, because of  the illness and the prostration of our bodies we could not sing, for all these things are for our good, for the purification of our desires. Truly fasting and sleeping on the ground are set before us because of our sensuality. If illness then weakens this sensuality the reason for these practices is superfluous. For this is the great asceticism: to control oneself in illness and to sing hymns of thanksgiving to God.”

It is much easier to bear the mortifications we choose of our own free will than it is to accept in humility and gratitude those which God Himself sends us, is it not? I know I have found this to be the case.

At times, when I read of great saints and the heroic penances and mortifications they engaged in, I find myself wanting to take on some of those same penances. My spiritual director has pointed out to me, however, that the Lord has sent me plenty of opportunity for penance and grace and growth in holiness. He names some of them. And I know he is correct, and I get a little embarrassed because I have to admit that I essentially have told the Lord, “But I don’t want those mortifications! I want these!

Why do I want the ones I’ve concocted for myself, and not the ones He has imposed? Well, because I can control the ones I have chosen! The monk who wears a hair shirt can, after all, take it off if he so desires. Not so with the mortifications which come with daily life. The irritating co-worker that one must put up with day after day, the chronic allergies one might experience, even the very state of life one has been admitted to…often, these cannot be shed on a whim, or even for a good and just reason. Some unpleasant and inconvenient things are permanent fixtures in our lives; accepting our lot in life for the love of God gains us grace and virtue.

That’s not to say that fasting and other mortifications aren’t warranted. I think Amma Syncletica’s words are more of a warning not to pursue mortifications simply for the sake of mortification. Life is full enough of troubles as it is… “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6:34).  Take the graces God makes available. Amma Syncletica says, we should “control ourselves in illness and sing hymns of thanksgiving to God”; in our modern day lives, might the word “illness” really encompass what we might consider “all the inconvenient and uncomfortable circumstances of our lives”? That’s how I look at it.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

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