Socrates died to find life. Though he had been unjustly condemned and his friends offered to rescue him, he drank the hemlock, denying his body in pursuit of higher goods. The Christian, too, must die in order to live, but the good we pursue is different than that sought by Socrates in at least one important way – we look forward to the resurrection of the body. We Christians thus live in a tension, striving like Socrates for higher good while valuing our bodies as our eternal companions, and, more than companions, part and parcel of our very selves.
Living in this tension, Christians throughout history have entered into ascetic struggle. Monks and nuns who enter into voluntary poverty are the chief examples of this, but every Christian is called to asceticism to some degree. During Lent, the ancient Tradition of the Church calls on almost all Christians to fast in penitence for sin and in hope for Heaven.
This universal practice of ascetic denial might seem to be fundamentally at odds with the hope of the Resurrection. If the body is a gift from God, and an eternal one at that, what is fasting but a rejection of that gift—less absolute, but no less real that Socrates drinking his hemlock?
The truth however, is the opposite. As I learned from my study of St. Maximus the Confessor, ascetic struggle is a way of living into the hope of the resurrection.
Indeed, I chose to study St. Maximus precisely to try and make sense of the seeming contradiction within the Christian Tradition between its affirmation of the created material order and its early adoption of a spiritualizing Platonism.
Maximus is undeniably a Platonic thinker who believes the spiritual to be more worthy than the physical, but at the same time he is emphatic on the necessity of the Christian doctrine of a future bodily resurrection and its importance not only as an article of faith, but as a foundation for Christian ethics. He calls those who insist on a future dissolution of bodies “obstinate and reckless,” and spills much ink writing about God’s purposes for our embodiment in relationship to our heavenly destinies.1
What Maximus taught me is that Christian ascetic practice is a way of bringing the life of the resurrection into the present. That future life, he believes, is one in which the body is subject to reason, but, more precisely, it is one in which the body is unified to the soul, and so to God, by love—a love that is directed first to God and then to our neighbors.
Ascetic practice, which mortifies the body in order to bring about love, is therefore undertaken for the purpose of making the present body into an image of its destiny in the general resurrection by subjecting it to loving reason. This is a topic which has obvious significance for us today.
As we enter Holy Week, we approach the ultimate act of ascetic sacrifice – Christ’s death upon the Cross, but also the realization of our eschatological hope in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Over the following week, I will be running a special 6-part series on how ascetic practice makes the life of the resurrection manifest in the present according to St. Maximus. My hope is that as you join me on this journey with St. Maximus, his insights will help you better engage in preparation for the joys and sorrows of Good Friday and Easter.
This post is Part 1 of a special 6 part series. It is drawn from the public presentation of my Master’s thesis given at Regent College in 2015. I will be putting up one post per day through Maundy Thursday.
- Maximus the Confessor, “Ambiguum 42,” in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, vol. 2, trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 151; PG 91:1332CD.