Part III. Chapter 3.

An Asceticism for Today

The meaning of chastity today.

Buddha said, "There is a path beyond suffering". It means that the goal of a spiritual discipline is not to add to suffering, but to lead one beyond suffering. Each path has its own specificity : in the path of devotion the ego is expected to be surrendered to the Divine, while in the path of knowledge there is a direct identification with the Divine. The risk in following the path of devotion is one of dependence and weakening while that in the path of knowledge is one of arrogance. In each case one becomes that on which one meditates : in this sense, continuous rumination about past sins can only lead to a falling back. It must be understood that the sense of culpability is supported by the pleasure that is felt on remembering the good time that one had while committing a wrong action. As for the demons, they are as much or as less real as our minds. If they are called, on the pretext of fighting them, they will come. Meditation on suffering as such is hardly of any interest : even a Jesuist like Father Kadowaki who has written on Zen and the Bible acknowledges it.1

A burning question is the relationship between spiritual evolution and sexual life. In India, those interested in spirituality generally abandon sexual life after a certain age while continuing to live with their spouses (‘Vanaprastha’). They also gradually hand over charge of their business to their eldest sons. The great rabbis of Judaism apparently also did the same. People in the West often dream of societies where sexuality is completely liberated. I do not belive that such societies exist. I lived for some time with a sufi group in a Muslim country, where for religious reasons, celibacy was hardly practised; daily religious life, however, with its numerous purification rituals was imbued with the idea of the necessity of sexual control and the religion rested heavily on it. I spoke to on anthroplogist from CNRS who lived for quite some years in Chinese villages: there too, society exercises control over sexuality the children being married off by their parents, like in India.

Apart from the obvious social necessity of some kind of sexual discipline there is the realisation, that in the link between religion and sexuality the roots of the latter goes deep into the mind; understanding these roots is to understand the mind. It could be said that a conscious control of sexuality through meditation which is not suppression, is proportional to the capacity for internalisation.

Some people say, like Drewermann, that long-term chastity is no longer possible in the West today.2 I think he is right in his analysis of the various ways in which the ecclesiastical system tried to exploit the energy awakened by chastity trying to comfort its own system and fulfill its own aims. I also think, like him, that priests should be allowed to marry as in Protestantism, Orthodoxy and other religions; contrary to Drewermann, however, I think that there are some beings, generally monks, who can actually transmute sexual energy into spiritual energy, realising the union of the masculine and the feminine within themselves. If one succeeds in finding an inner happiness which is devoid of all erotic connotation then one is close to a completely independent, and therefore perfectly stable joy. I do not say that it is an easy course to follow; but it can be learnt, not from books, but from a spiritual master who himself has been successful along this path. Hindus attach great importance to chastity in order to achieve the awakening of stable Kundalini (‘ojhas’). To them it is linked to the development of inner strength (Kundalini Shakti). It is interesting to note that the name that Greek tradition gives to sexual continence is "encratera", or the "strength within" which is similar in meaning to "energy" or "enthusiasm" ("God within").

I understand Drewermann’s attitude of therapist: when seeing patients imprisoned in a celibacy which no longer suited them or which perhaps had never suited them, he could asked them to get married. Sometimes, however the fascination with change also represents an escape. When I myself was a practising therapist, a large number of my patients came to me with their conjugal problems; my first reaction was to tell them : give up this relationship and live alone; you won’t die of it .....". The best solution, however, is to really face up to the problem, wherever one is and in whatever state.

Drewermann gives great importance to psycho-analytical methods, but it is obvious that he did not live in a milieu of therapists as I did, which has many tensions, even as the ecclesiastical system of power has its quarrels between its churches chapels and sub-chapels. Besides, although he seems to have an open mind about the East, he hardly mentions the different techniques of meditation as instruments for exploring the mind. He only mentions that Zen is practised in some monasteries. Yet, for clerics who are not too disturbed, a recourse to the psycho-corporal techniques of meditation would be better than psycho-analysis, the latter resting more on materialistic assumptions (which even Jung admitted), while traditional meditation and Christianity share common views on quite a few essential points.

Drewermann, like other therapists, sees things through the spectacles of his clients, who have problems. The monks who succeed in their monasitic life have no reason to consult him as if they live in two separate worlds.


What can be said about an asceticism for today’s world? I am not a spiritual teacher, and "to each his own path and teacher" is what I believe. The only remark that I would like to make here, having talked of the desert spirituality is of a psychological nature. Before dreaming of leaving for the desert to gain spiritual experiences, it would be better to learn how to filter the noise that comes to us from the outside, particularily the manipulation of emotions which the media indulge in, and which is the vehicle of considerable mental pollution. I hope that this idea of mental pollution will soon draw the attention of the public in much the same way as the ideas of noise pollution or the depletion of the ozone layer have done. I do not think it is necessary to make a desert or a waste land within ourselves; on the contrary, natural park can be created, where our real nature can be protected and allowed to develop by itself away from the invasion of external elements.

The temptation of excessive asceticism is not just a thing of the past. When people have passed the stage of "hippie mysticism"- ‘Make love not war’ - and understood the necessity of intensity in spiritual life, they can always be tempted by excessive aseticism : for some it will be prolonged fasting under the guise of dieting; for others it will be the practice of hatha-yoga to the point of dislocating the joints, with the underlying unconscious desire to punish the body for being what it is. As for Orthodox monks, the temptation of excessive asceticism is still present. In a ‘Paterikoi’ (a collection of the thoughts and actions of recently deceased Fathers) of 1985 at Mt-Athos, I found the following facts : a monk remained standing in prayer for eight days without eating or sleeping,3 another was found half-dead after he had fasted for six weeks; yet another was highly praised for "having spent his life in doing more violence to himself than was naturally possible"4; and finally there was the old monk who spent fifty-six years without stepping outside his monastery.

In recent history religious passions did not save the sacred mountain of Athos either. At the beginning of the century, some monks had the mystical intuition that Jesus and His Name were one. This is an idea which is prevalent in India : ‘nam’ (the Name) and ‘nami’ (he who is named which means God) are one. The doctrine of these monks who were called "onomatodox" displeased the central authority of the Orthodox Church. On reporting it to the Tsar, the latter dispatched his warships against the new mystics of Athos.5 This quarrel between the onomatodox and the "fundamemtalodox" makes one wonder about the use of naval artillery in the field of mystical theology.......... .

The main drawback of excessive asceticism is that it very soon leads to a distaste of spiritual life among people. Recently I was in Saint Petersburg, where I could attend service in the biggest monastry of women in the city. In one sense, it was good to see the rebirth of religious life after seventy years of persecution. One wondered however whether the excessive asceticism which was evident did much to rekindle an interest in spiritual life in the mass of Russians and especially the interest of those who were inclined towards consumerism.

About how the excesses of asceticism can disqualify monastic life there is the example of the monastry of St-Catherine of Sinai at the beginning of the VIth century. This monastery could exist in a Muslim milieu because of a letter written by Prophet Mohammad thanking the monks for having sheltered him when he himself was being persecuted. If this letter is authentic, it is easy to imagine the meeting between the future founder of Islam and his host, who might well have been either John Climacus or his master Martyrius. The severity of their teaching and the great austerity of their lives might have cooled down Mohammad and influenced him later when he forbade monastic life in Islam.

The goal of spiritual practice is joy, and joy should also be its moving force. The Fathers evoked an alchemy of emotions similar to that practised by the Tibetans, when they said that it was necessary to try to "transform anger into charity, and pleasure into joy" Isaac the Syrian asserted : "Humility comes either from the fear of God or from His love, or again from joy".6 This joy was what earned Saint Seraphim of Sarov the love and devotion of the Russian people. He used to greet them calling them his "joy", sometimes he pointed to an icon of Christ saying "Here is my joy", then he took out an icon of the Virgin and added, "And here is the joy of my joy". He asserted that he who had attained peace could convert a thousand people, but he who had attained joy could convert ten thousand. The only problem with the experience of joy is that it does not last; but it is however a step in the right direction. As the Fathers said, "When you feel a joy which is above all joy, know that you are in true prayer".


Throughtout history there has been great conflict regarding Hesychasm and the use of the body in prayer. This conflict culminaled in the dispute between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam in the XIVth century. The Palamite was in favour of using the body and respiration during the prayer of Jesus. He regarded it not as an obstacle but as an aid to the final goal of internalisation, and to a union with God which was stable, beyond the vicissitudes and constant variations of the corporal state . We have seen in the sections entitled "Respect and disident ification from the body", that the descent within the body and the liberation of the mind are two successive phases of the same process, and thus do not have to be opposed to each other.

"Hesychia" means "rest" and the "hesychast" according to John Climacus, is one who says,"I am asleep but my heart is awake" (Cant 5,2). In the Hindu tradition of Shaktism (centred around the cult of the Divine Mother), it is yogic rest (‘yoga - nidra’) which is the supreme state and the first manifestation of the power of the goddess. The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam explains that it was only after he awakened from his ‘yoga-nidra’ or sleep, that Vishnu could create the world. This state, therefore is superior to the functions of either creation, preservation or destruction of the universe.

The concentration on the heart advised in Hesychasm is also practised in yoga (the chakra of the heart is called "anahata"). The holding of the breath and the forward inclination of the head advised by Gregory the Sinaite8 is remini scent of the practices of ‘pranayama’ and of the ‘jalandhara mudra’. According to Patanjali, "the concen tration on the heart allows the observation of the mind" (Yoga-sutra III-35), a practice which leads us to a complete knowledge of Self.

There is a very ancient Hindu practice9 which has not yet been developed in Hesychasm but which might well be included in it one day, as it is very powerful. This practice consists of no longer just concentrating on the heart, but, while reciting the mantra, focussing on each part of the body turn by turn in order to ‘establish’ one’s God in the entire body. The prayer of the heart thus becomes the prayer of the body, and may allow a greater transparence of the entire being. From the psychological point of view, the association of a word or an image with each part of body facilitates its integration in deep memory. From the spiritual points of view, if a single point of concentration is chosen in the long term, it is better to choose the heart or one of the superior chakras. For a more experienced person, however, any part of the body can serve as the starting-point for a meditation which in any case is beyond the body.

One of the teachings of the Fathers is : "Think of God with every breath that you take". John Climachus says, "May Jesus’s name be united with your breath : you will then know the value of solitude".10 This latter practice is very widespread in India : the observation of breathing associated to the recitation of the mantra. The observation of breathing corresponds to the ‘anapanasatti’ of the Buddhists, a technique which according to them, can by itself lead to ‘nirvana’.

Let us now examine the indirect descriptions given by the Fathers, of the awakening of the Kundalini. The Kundalini represents the fundamental, inner energy, the Goddess within. In Hebrew, ‘ruah’ (spirit) is feminine, and the practice of the Fathers aims at awakening the spirit within. Despite his austerity John Climacus had to acknowledge that his spiritual energy was based on his physical energy : "If I give it a hard blow to this body, I no longer have the force necessary for obtaining the virtues".11 He also describes the rise of "something" under the pressure put by a firm will for internalisation : "Like water under pressure shoots up, thus does the soul, pressed by danger, rise towards God through penitance and finds its liberation".12 We have already mentioned that he eulogised silence by describing it as a "secret ascension", even in the title of his book, "The Holy Ladder", which earned him the name "Climacus". The thirty two degrees which are described could correspond to the thirty two vertebrae of the spine. The spine is associated to a tree : Abbot John Colobos says : "When I am assaulted by the serpents and beasts of thought, I protect myself by climbing the tree of God."13 This idea of arising, also found in Macarius must have been reinforced by the posture of prayer adopted in anagient times standing with arms outraised : "It a strange thought rises within you never look down, look up and soon the lord will come to your aid".14 This notion of a rise that was even felt in the body, seemed so fundamental to John Climacus that he placed it at the beginning of the final exhortation in the "Holy Ladder" : "Climb, climb, brothers, deal spiritedly with the ascensions in your heart (Ps5 83,6). [.........] Listen to he who says, "come, let us go to the Lord’s mountain to our God’s home (I5 2,3), [........] the Lord who makes us sure-footed, and supports us on the heights (Ps 5 17,34) [......] so that with his hymn we can achieve victory (Hab 3, 19)".15


I do not think that this comparison between Hesychasm and Vedanta would be useful for those who are already spiritually well advanced. As the Japanese proverb says; "If you know and I know, we do not need to talk any more". For those, however, who are trying to understand the similarities and differences between the various spiritual paths, and who wonder whether they lead to the same goal, this work might be of help.

There are different ways in which the return to action of someone who has withdrawn from the world to experience the great silence can be regarded. The "pure" form, if it can be so called, is the concept of the sage reaching the peak, called ‘sahaja-samadhi’ in the Vedanta or the "union of ‘SAMSARA’ and ‘NIRVANA’in Mahayana Buddhism." At that moment the sage’s action is spontaneous, motivated solely by compassion. A spiritual master like Buddha, however, sent his non-realised disciples, to tell the people that "there is a path beyond suffering". Vivekananda, who was strongly influenced by Buddha, aimed at the ideal of a complete union between action and meditation : "The ideal man is he who finds the most intense activity in the most complete silence and solitude, and the silence and solitude of the desert in activity. He has learnt the secret of the mastery of the Self, he is self-controlled".16

The monk should, first and foremost, heed the angel’s advice to Antony on the first page of the ‘Apophtegms’ : "Antony, pay attention to your self".17 Ammonas one of Antony’s direct disciples, however, envisages the return to the world, or rather to the service of the world, as a natural evolution : "[After the long purification by solitude], cured of all his ills, the hesychast is sent by God to men".18

In Indian tradition, the renuniate abondons ritual action because his meditation on the One is beyond all rites. It is interesting to note that the same idea is found in the beginning of desert monasticism. Cassien tells us that the Egyptian hermits did not practice any service because they prayed continuously (Cenobitic Institutions III-2). They also soon gave up regular participation in the sacraments.19 This idea of by-passing ritual gradually weakened : Monasticism became more academic, it was necessary to discipline the numerous novices with their various habits. In the West, Saint Benedict’s rule was more or loss imposed, and this in itself restricted the possibilities of non-ritualistic monasticism, and of pure prayer, simply and directly oriented towards Hesychia. In the East, Mt. Athos had about forty thousand monks in the Middle Ages (they now number about one thousand three hundred ) Mass was held daily, low mass was added to High Mass, and there was a regular service for the Virgin. It is quite understandable that today’s monks are envious of the early freedom, when mature ascetics could devote themselves full-time to the practice of Hesychia.

Perhaps the appearance of non-Christian monks (Tibetan and Zen) in the West and the contacts between Christian and Buddhist or Hindu monks in Asia will lead the Christians to reexamine themselves and to return to basics, as it were. A Zen master questioned one of his disciples one day. The latter -most certainly a good student and perhaps even a specialist of sacred text embarked on a lengthy explanation. The master interrupted him saying : "There is too much Buddhism in what you are saying !...."

If only there could arise, either from among monks or lay persons, such men and women which are concerned with the essential, without much "isms" around, what service they would render to mankind !












1. Kadowaki, I.K. "Le zen et la Bible" (‘Zen and the Bible’) p. 229 ed. Albin Michel, coll. Espaces Libres, 1983,1992

2. Drewermann, Eugen "Fonctionnaires de Dieu" (‘Employees of God) p. 418-529 and 604-631 ed - Albin Michel

3. "Le Message Orthodoxe" (‘The Orthodox Message’), special issue on Mt Athos today, no. 95, p. 56, 1983

4. Ibidem p.42

5. Clement Olivier "Berdiaev p. 229 ed. Desclee de Brouwer, 1991

6. Kadloubovsky E. and Palmer G.E.H. (translators), "Early Fathers from the Philokalia p. 275, Faber and Faber, London, 1954, 1981

7. "Srimad Devi Bhagavatam p. 26 Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi 1991

8. Bloom Antony in "Technique et contemplation" (‘Technique and Contemplation’) p. 59, compiled by Father Bruno de Sainte-Marie, ed Desclee de Brouwer, 1949

9. Vigne Jacques, "Le Maitre et le Therapeute" (Guru and Psychotherapist) p. 62, ed. Albin Michel, coll. Spiritualites vivantes, and Srimad Devi Bhagvatam p. 719 in press with BR publications with the title : "Sadguru"

10. Quoted in Meyendorf John, "St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality" p.96 Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, USA 1974

11. Saint John Climacus, p.176

12. Ibidem p.96

13. Guy, J.C. - "Paroles des Anciens" ("Words of the Ancients") p.71

14. Ibidem p.96

15. Saint John Climacus, "L’echelle sainte" (‘The Holy Ladder’) p.320 Abbey de Bellefontaine, coll. Spiritualite orientale, 1967

16. Swami Vivekananda, "Meditation and its Methods" p.130, Advaita Ashram Calcutta, 1992

17. Guy, J.C., "Paroles des Anciens - Apophtegmes des Peres du desert" (‘Words of the Ancients -Apophthegms of the Desert Fathers) ed Seuil, p.15

18. Hausherr Irenee S.I., "La philautie" p.190, Orientala Christiana Analecta Pontificum Institutum Orientalium Studiorium, 1952, 1972

19. Meyendorf, p.21