Antony, tempted

By Fr. Luke Dysinger, OSB submitted for the Oxford Dictionary of Mystical Theology



[Asceticism and Mystical Theology.doc]

In classical antiquity the Greek term askēsis and its cognates originally referred to the training necessary to acquire a skill.  It denotes disciplined exercise and deliberate repetitive practice undertaken for a specific purpose.  In the earliest sources askēsis often refers to athletic training, but it can also describe any exercise necessary for the development of a profession, artistic skill, or special lifestyle.  The later philosophical tradition applied it to the quest for moral excellence, arēte or virtue (Kittel 1964 vol. 1: 494-496).  For Aristotle the goal of askēsis is the constant, delicate maintenance of a “midpoint” or balance with regard to human impulses or drives.  Aristotle describes virtue, moral excellence, as a habit acquired by constantly maintaining and fine-tuning the balance between two opposing “vices” or negative tendencies: excess on the one hand; and deficiency on the other (Nicomachean Ethics Bk. 2.15, 1107a; Irwin 1999: 25). Appropriate asceticism will thus vary, depending both on the goal towards which one is oriented and on the strength and direction of the impulses to which one is subject.

        In the Christian mystical tradition the term “asceticism” encompasses a broad range of practices intended to eliminate vice and inculcate virtue.  Christianity inherited from platonic and aristotelian philosophy the conviction that ascetical practice, the bios praktikos or vita activa is a necessary preparation for contemplation, the bios theoretikos or vita contemplativa.

       In the Christian East growth in spiritual maturity came to be envisioned as a tripartite ascent from[:]

ascetical practice (praktikē) to

natural contemplation (physikē) and

contemplation of the divine nature (theologikē).

The principal exponent of this model of ascent is the monk Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) who used it as the basis for his spiritual trilogy of Praktikos, Gnostikos,and Kephalaia Gnostica.  His model is based on a classical pedagogical triad regularly reiterated in the writings of Philo (d.c. 50) and borrowed from the older Sophists, according to which education is based on

instruction [(mathēsis)],

nature, [(phusis)] and

practice (askēsis).

In Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) and Origen (d. 254) this became a threefold method of interpreting the Scriptures:



and mystical (see Smalley 1964: 1-34).

For Evagrius this model was both a method of biblical exegesis and a description of the soul’s journey towards God (Evagrius, Praktikos, Prol 8, ch. 1-3, 84-89; Sinkewicz 2003: 97, 111-112) .  Evagrius’ model won favor in the East through its adoption by Maximus Confessor (d. 662); it was adapted and popularized in the West through the Institutes and Conferences of Evagrius’ disciple John Cassian (d.c. 430).

        An analogous model of spiritual growth arose somewhat later in the West that depicts asceticism as

purgation from sin, leading to

“illumination”, and eventually culminating in an experience of

contemplative union with God.

The doctrine of three “ways” of purgation, illumination, and union is often associated with the sixteenth-century Carmelite tradition represented by Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) and John of the Cross (d. 1591).  However these categories had long been known in the West through such texts as the de Triplici Via by the Franciscan Bonaventure (d.1274) and the Spiritual Exercises of the Benedictine Garcia de Cisneros (d.1510).  The goal of Christian asceticism thus came to be understood not simply as moral perfection, but rather theosis, “divinization” as it was described in the East, and beatific vision and unio mystica, mystical union, in the West.

        From this perspective asceticism appears in a wholly positive light.  It is an essential component of spiritual growth analogous to the athlete’s quest to achieve peak physical efficiency.  Ascetical practices such as fasting, celibacy and nocturnal vigils are not ends in themselves but are rather tools that help keep in balance physical drives such as hunger, thirst, sleep, and the desire for intimacy.  Voluntary dispossession, obedience, and ritual prayer similarly assist in harmonizing more interior intellectual impulses: namely, those concerned with ownership, leadership, personal worth in relationships, and the capacity to maintain inner attentiveness to God.

This positive understanding of askēsis as training in moral and spiritual balance has always been present in Christian teaching.  In the West it was most definitively expressed in Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on habits, virtues, and vices (Summa theologica I-IIae, q. 49-89; Dominicans 1947 vol. 1: 793-992).  However this balanced understanding has often been overshadowed by a more negative approach.  Since moral training is always strenuous and sometimes painful, there exists a perennial tendency to shift from the metaphor of athletic or artistic exercise to that of military warfare.  In place of Aristotle’s complex quest for a mean or midpoint between opposing vices of excess and deficiency, Christian moral teaching has often substituted a simplified schema that focuses on the need to suppress or “mortify” powerful desires that lead to sin.  This approach may divert the focus of asceticism from the contemplative goal of union with God towards a potentially unwholesome preoccupation with whatever is most difficult or unpleasant.  Ignatius Loyola’s (d. 1556) otherwise helpful doctrine of agere contra “strive against [temptation]” (Spiritual Exercises, Annotation 13, Mullen 1914: 9) can be made to serve a kind of spiritual masochism that undertakes ascetical practices not because they are necessarily therapeutic, but precisely because they are difficult and painful.

        Bishop Kallistos Ware has emphasized the importance of distinguishing between natural asceticism and negative asceticism.

Natural asceticism has as its goal “the ‘refinement’ of our physicality, so that we are more accessible to ‘the influence of higher forces’ and thus approach closer to God.”

Negative asceticism, on the other hand, emphasizes “the fact of abstaining from this or that…depriving oneself of something by way of punishment.” (Ware, 1998: 10-11)

By emphasizing the destruction of our instinctive urges negative asceticism can lead to hatred of the body, whereas natural asceticism has as its goal “the reintegration of the body and the transformation of the passions into their true and natural condition…transfiguration rather than mortification.” (Ware, 1998: 12-13)


 In the deuterocanonical book of Fourth Macabees it refers to the practice of piety or the exercise of religion[1] religious exercise or practice.  In the New Testament this term is only used once, attributed to St. Paul in the Book of Acts,: “So I always exert myself (askō) to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men at all times.”[2]

technical exercise in the control of thoughts and impulses. We can see this in the older Sophists, who singled out askēsis/σκησις as a third factor alongside nature (phusis/φύσις) and instruction (mathēsis/μάθησις) in the process of education.

Further examples are to be found especially in Epict.Diss., III, 3, 16: κα του̂το ε πολου̂μεν κα πρς του̂το σκούμεθα καθ μέραν ξ ρθρου μέχρι νυκτός, γίνετο ν τι, ν τος θεούς, and again in IV, 1, 81; III, 2, 1, where there is mention of the three τόποι in which the man who would be καλς κα γαθός must exercise himself. Cf. also III, 12, 8.

PHILO of Alexandria [, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus whose mystical commentaries on the Old Testament strongly influenced the mystical exegesis of early Christianity] introduced both the term [askēsis] and the reality into theological ethics. He allots the three functions in the Sophist doctrine of education, i.e., instruction (mathēsis/μάθησις) nature, (phusis/φύσις), and asceticism (askēsis/σκησις) , to the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.5 Jacob is for [Philo] the model ascetic = [moral] athlete σκητής == θλητής, the spiritual wrestler (on the basis of Genesis 32:24 ff.);6 cf. Leg. All., III, 190 πτερνισθήσεται πρὸς του̂ πάλην ἠσκηκότος Ιακώβπάλην δ οὐ τὴν σώματος, ἀλλ ἣν παλαίει ψυχή, πρὸς τοὺς ἀνταγωνιστὰς τρόπους αὐτη̂ς πάθεσι καὶ κακίαις μαχομένη. Here we have the foundation of the later ecclesiastical concept of asceticism to the degree that in this bodily and spiritual training the emphasis lies on the taming of desires and abstention from all enjoyment.7 Philo already makes the link λιγοδεΐαν κα γκράτειαν σκει̂ν in Praem. Poen., 100, as also καθαρν εσέβειαν σκει̂ν in Abr., 129.


For who is a practitioner in exercise? He who practices not using his desire, and applies his aversion only to things which are within the power of his will, and practices most in the things which are difficult to conquer.

τίς γάρ ἐστιν ἀσκητής; ὁ μελετῶν ὀρέξει μὲν μὴ χρῆσθαι͵ ἐκκλίσει δὲ πρὸς μόνα τὰ προαιρετικὰ χρῆσθαι καὶ μελετῶν μᾶλλον ἐν τοῖς δυσκαταπονήτοις.


[1] “were you not ashamed to murder his servants and torture on the wheel those who practice religion (ἀσκητὰς στρεβλῶσαι)? ,4Ma 12:11, RSV,

[2] It is also found in Fourth Macabees in the sense of practicing religion:

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