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Zeal, Piety and Sanctity

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Sometimes the world seems to be divided into those who think being zealous, pious and holy are good things, and those who think they violate every principle of healthy human behavior.

The dictionary tells us that piety comes from the Latin word pius meaning "good," which in English has come to mean devotion, especially towards religion. Our English word "zeal" comes from a Greek word meaning "to burn." A similar English word is "fervor," which comes from the Latin rather than the Greek but basically means the same thing: eagerness, devotion, ardor, passion, enthusiasm, eagerness, warmth, fire… All good things. Yet St. Paul tells us (Romans 10:2) that even when zeal (or ardor) is rightly directed towards God, it also can be misguided. Then "sanctity." Who can quarrel with sanctity? In English, the word comes from the same root as our word "sanity," from the Latin meaning "wholeness," so that holy is a synonym.

In God’s mercy I believe I have met saints, sanctified people. Not the people with obvious piety one sometimes encounters, but men and women who have given me a sense of God’s presence and love. Not necessarily great ascetics, they sometimes have showed some apparently serious defects such as hot tempers or compulsive habits, or have such poor health that they cannot even keep a minimal fast. They have reminded me of St. Paul who wrote: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin". (Romans 7:25) and "to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated…" (2 Corinthians 12:7).

God glorifies Himself in such people with other gifts: they may be outstanding founders, builders and philanthropists, leaving behind churches, schools and seminaries, monasteries, hospitals and orphanages, or teachers of the Church and teachers of children; healers of soul and body who have studied and used many of the tools of modern knowledge and science yet have known that with all their work and study, it is God who has healed through those means; nuns whose obedience has not allowed them to be great ascetics, but whose love, joy and freedom have made me feel that I was palpably in the presence of the living God; men and women whose interest in others, whose love and care has been self-effacing, sacrificial and life-giving. These people have left behind for others a heritage of love, compassion and godliness that infinitely exceeds any material heritage of wealth or power.

Many of the ancients felt that a certain type of zeal and piety would not be possible for later generations. There is more than one story of monks from the desert in the early Christian centuries telling of the great ascetic feats of the elders, yet with the "punch-line" that in the "latter days" those who have no such feats but maintain their faith will be deemed greater in the kingdom of heaven.

What is the reasoning behind the ascetic piety of the Church? Our faith, based on God’s unique incarnation in Jesus Christ, proclaims the redemption of the whole man, body and soul. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and when He ascended into heaven, He was not a disembodied spirit. We do not believe that we should despise our bodies as something intrinsically evil that we will be freed from at death. On the contrary, even after death, the bodies of Christians are treated with great respect, and the bodies of those who have been manifested as holy perform miracles of healing and are venerated as we venerate an icon, as vessels sanctified by and mediating the Holy Spirit.

As Christians, we cannot have a spirit or a spirituality that is separate from our entire being. To be Christians, we cannot use just our minds to think holy thoughts – rather our entire being, beginning with our physical body, must partake of the body and blood of our incarnate Savior, and organically and mysteriously, becomes physically one with Him. And according to His gifts, our entire being, soul mind and body may grow into a health that approaches the life of Adam before the fall. This "wholistic" and scriptural approach to life allows us to enter fully into the mystery of the Church. We may dare to say with St. Paul, "we have the mind of Christ." (1 Corinthians 2:16) and ultimately, St Peter tells us, we are to become partakers of the divine nature, and St. Paul, that we will become one Body with Him (cf. Romans 12:15 & 1 Corinthians Chapter 6).

There are those who have been sanctified by God’s grace in this lifetime: There is a very strong tradition that even the bodies as well as the souls of some of these people have been beyond death, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Enoch and Elijah were said not to have died, but to have been "taken" bodily into heaven. (Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:10-12) The Mother of God and the Beloved Disciple died and were buried, but their bodies were raised and were not found. With Christ, these are the first fruits of the Resurrection. Then there are the well-documented cases of saints, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, who in life were seen to shine with the light of Transfiguration. Their bodies remain with us on this earth, but like the fathers of the monastery of the Kievan Caves, they may be preserved from corruption in death and continue to be sources of miracles and wonders.

We are all called to participate in Christ’s perfection in different ways. For a better understanding of this, I highly recommend reading St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, beginning especially with chapter 12, verse 28 and continuing through chapter 13. If one can memorize only one passage from the scriptures, surely this is the one…

We can try to practice some of the ascetic feats of the ancients — but can we do it as a response in love to God who has first loved us? Can our asceticism produce or grow out of the deep peace, the joyful tears and lack of anger and judgment that the desert fathers insisted must be the context and fruits of any ascetical effort? St. Isaac the Syrian, perhaps more than any other spiritual writer extolled the life of the spiritual athlete in solitude. He was nevertheless insistent that if one sees oneself as better than any other person on this earth, then one’s efforts are delusion rather than true virtue.

There are many forms of extreme asceticism, found in almost every culture and religion: extreme solitude, fasting for periods of time from all food and drink, abstaining at all times from oil and animal products, cooked or seasoned foods, complete sexual abstinence, keeping vigil and depriving oneself of sleep, standing in prayer rather than sitting, limiting one’s reading or hearing to the Scriptures and lives and writings of the saints, refraining from all humor and laughter or from indulging one’s senses in the sounds of music or the comfort and scents of oils and perfumes, avoiding cleanliness and so on. We know from reading the lives of the saints that there have been traditions of monastic guides who have been experienced in such "toils," and like expert athletic coaches and trainers, have been able to guide neophytes in these ways, gradually allowing them to take on those tasks which are appropriate for their age and their God-given abilities. When such tasks are appropriate from a Christian standpoint, they help to expose and then purge the roots of self-will and self-indulgence, anger, neurotic illness, and any of the other results of sin that keep our humanity bound and limited.

The gift of tears is traditionally seen as the link between such deeds, thoughts and intentions and one’s heart and "gut." According to the ascetical fathers of the Church, beginning with the desert-dwellers of Egypt and on down through St. John Climacus, St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Paisius Velichkovsky who is closer to our own time, there has been a very clear teaching that if one’s life and efforts before God have not brought the gift of weeping for one’s own sins together with tears of compassion for all mankind and the whole of creation caught in the travail of the fallen universe (cf. Romans 8:19-23), one’s life and efforts have been in vain. But it takes enormous discernment and effort for men and women to grow into a healthy mourning that is not morbid depression or despair, and especially here a sensitive and experienced trainer is a necessity. Simply to cut out a sense of humor and the ability to laugh and smile at appropriate times and have tears stream down one’s face may be a sign of pathology rather than of the deep and selfless love that can only be God’s gift.

There must be discernment, which is not a private affair, with all of these forms of asceticism, and the recognition that if God does not give one the gifts or the providence (including guides and trainers) to exercise such asceticism in a spirit of love, joy, peace and long-suffering, then one’s gifts lie elsewhere.

When we cannot emulate such ascetic feats, we should not say they are of no value. Indeed until the end of the world there will always be men and women whose great, God-given love allows them to strive in these ways with love for all mankind and for all of creation, but it seems that in these days especially such people are truly hidden. We will not normally know about them. They will not appear on TV nor will they be plugged into the Internet. Such feats of asceticism are a gift from God to strengthen the spiritual network of prayer that holds the fragile web of creation together, and they do not need to be observed or given human approval to be operative. On the contrary, the more deeply hidden they are; the more sacrificial the life of the one given such gifts, the more effective will be the outpouring of love through them.

Let us pray that even in our days some will be given the gift of such deep love and the effort that offers their entire being to God. But let us not presume to take such a gift to ourselves before it is the time. We may struggle to take the Kingdom of God by violence, but let this struggle be in love and humility, not in pride and arrogance.

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