Asceticism and the Environmental Crisis

“The environmental crisis will not be solved simply by sentimental expressions of regret or aesthetic formulations of a creative imagination. It will not be altered by fashionable programs or ecumenical catch-words. It is the “tree of the cross” that reveals to us the way out of our ecological impasse by proposing the solution of self-denial, the denial of selfishness or self-centeredness. It is, therefore, the spirit of asceticism that in the final analysis leads to the spirit of gratitude and love, to a rediscovery of the sense of wonder and beauty.
In this context, we would define asceticism as the possibility of traveling lightly, of using and consuming less. And we can always manage with much less than we imagine. We are to learn to relinquish our desire to possess and control. We must stop wounding the natural resources of this earth and learn to live simply, no longer competing against one another and against nature for our survival. What is called for is a softening up in our relations toward each other and toward nature. We must learn to make our communities more sensitive and to render our behavior toward nature more respectful. This means acquiring a merciful attitude, a compassionate heart. Such a heart cannot bear to deplete – still less to destroy – the earth that we inhabit and share. In the seventh century, St. Isaac of Syria defined this as:
“Having a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation: for humans, for birds, for beasts, even for demons – for all God’s creatures.”

Asceticism, then, aims at a sense of refinement, not at any form of detachment or destruction. Its goal is always moderation, never repression. The content of asceticism is positive, not negative. It looks to service and not selfishness, to reconciliation and not renunciation or escape. Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human. Without asceticism, none of us can hope to heal our broken environment.
The general impression that people in western societies have of asceticism is negative. Asceticism carries with it the baggage of dualism and denial, developed over many centuries, both inside and outside the Christian church. This is why so many people have misunderstood and even dismissed monasticism. Yet this is not the vision of wholeness that Orthodox spirituality proposes through its ascetic dimension. The sacramental dimension of the world is so intimately and so profoundly linked with the ascetic dimension. Asceticism is the conscious awareness and deeper recognition that humanity is dependent not only on God, but also on the world, and indeed on the food chain, just like every other creature made by God.
Such asceticism, however, requires from us a voluntary restraint, in order for us to live in harmony with our environment. Asceticism offers practical examples of conservation. By reducing our consumption – what in Orthodox theology we call enkrateia or self-control – we come to ensure that sufficient resources are also left for others in the world to share and enjoy. As we shift our will and focus of concern, we shall be able to demonstrate a com-passion for the poorer nations of our world. Our abundance of resources should also be extended – beyond ourselves and our own – to include an abundance of equitable concern for others.

This further implies that humanity is not to act as the tyrannical overlord but as a servant and minister, who kneels in prayer for the preservation and progress of creation. In this way, humanity is able to restore harmony with the rest of the world, as well as to reconcile all people and all things with God. This responsibility or obligation underlines the priestly dimension of the human vocation. Human beings are called to be priests and not proprietors of nature. Humanity has an active role to play within the world, endowed with the moral responsibility to assume creation in an act of giving in order to refer it to God in an act of thanksgiving.
The seventh-century hermit on Mt. Sinai and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, who is remembered every year in Orthodox monasteries during Great Lent, wrote:
“A monk without possessions is master of the entire world.”
Similarly, St. Paul recommends the avoidance of avarice, when he writes:
“As we have food and clothing, let them suffice to us.” (I Timothy 6.8)
Asceticism and self-restraint are ways of realizing the words of St. Paul, who elsewhere says that we are to be:
“As having nothing yet possessing all things.” (II Corinthians 6.10)
It is following the commandment of Christ:
“Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses it for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16.25)

Now, this voluntary ascetical life is not required only of the hermits or monastics. It is also demanded of all Orthodox Christians, according to the measure of balance. That is to say, each Orthodox Christian is called to practice a voluntary self-limitation in the consumption of food and natural resources. Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need. Only through such self-denial, through our willingness sometimes to forgo and to say ‘no’ or ‘enough’ will we rediscover our true human place in the universe. Such is part and parcel of the ascetic ethos of Orthodox spirituality…
Desert hermit
The Orthodox attitude of asceticism and practice of fasting appears not to impose any method of dealing with and solving the environmental problems of our time. However, just as the individual actions of tens of thousands of members of society produce great pollution, so the voluntary restraint of an Orthodox monk is of great benefit for all. It is a lesson in “cultivating and keeping the earth” (Genesis 2.15). Therefore, the discipline of fasting becomes a necessary corrective for our culture of wasting. It is a way of breaking bad habits and of seeing the world with new eyes, or with God’s eyes.
Now, by way of conclusion, you will perhaps remember that, at the outset of my address, I mentioned that the newly-tonsured Orthodox monk or nun stands before the community bearing three symbolical tokens. The last of these is a prayer-rope. It is a symbol of the continual struggle and desire expressed through prayer for the protection of our world. The environmental program of the Churches cannot simply involve philosophical or political changes. It must include a spiritual repentance that occurs only through continual prayer. Addressing the ecological issues of our time will not only take place in the public sphere or the political domain. It will primarily take place on our knees.

May God’s abundant mercy always hear the voice of our prayer, watch over our heart, and guide our steps for the integrity and renewal of His creation.”
Lecture of His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew at the Ustein Monastery, Norway – “The Ascetic Corrective”


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