[W]orldly literature has never understood the spirit of Christian asceticism, and … this literature has called Christian asceticism superficial and unjustifiable. When worldly writers write about spiritual exercises, their words are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, pitifully meager. But this is partly because of the lack of skill of their ecclesiastical opponents and partly because it is impossible to speak about ascetic experience outside of the experience itself.

~ Pavel Florensky, “Letter 9: Creation,” The Pillar and Ground of the Truth

In the midst of researching for a conference paper to be presented this summer, I came across some wonderful reflections on asceticism by Pavel Florensky, the Russian Orthodox priest, philosopher, mathematician, et al., who was martyred for his faith by the Soviets in 1937. The following are some of his reflections on asceticism from his work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth:

The longing for the salvation and renewal of creation, the excruciating sense of free responsibility for creation, the acute pity for creation, the profound consciousness of one’s own powerlessness, a powerlessness that is a result of sin and impurity, all this pierces the ascetic’s soul, to the secret source of tears.

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Asceticism is not accepted because its fundamental idea—the idea of deification, the idea … of the holy body—is not accepted.

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[P]atristic theology reveals with ultimate definitiveness the truth that eternal life is the life not of the soul only but also of the body…. Not only the “soul of a Christian” becomes a “coparticipant in the Divine nature.” But so does his body. A man is united with God both in spirit and body…. Purification of the heart opens the eyes to the world above and thereby organizes the whole man. The soul is sanctified and the body is sanctified; to a holy soul is joined a holy body.

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The pillars of the church’s understanding of life, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Methodius of Olympus, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and many others, express this idea so clearly and hold so firmly to it that any reader who has been looking at ascesis with the eyes of secular writers, of writers who speak about ascesis either in ignorance or with evil intent against the Holy Church, cannot fail to be astonished.

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A genuine Christian ascetic views life in a wholly different way. Although he considers the existing order not ‘natural’ but a perversion of nature, he nevertheless loves the world with a true love and he mercifully tolerates the dirt that has settled on the world, covering it with his meekness…. He lives in a measured and peaceful way, the progress of his ascesis resembling the movement of the sun through the heavens.

The higher the Christian ascetic ascends on his path to the heavenly land, the brighter his inner eye shines, the deeper the Holy Spirit descends into his heart—the more clearly then will he see the inner, absolutely valuable core of creation, the more intensely then will pity for the prodigal child of God burn in his soul. And when the spirit descended on the saints in their highest flights of prayer, they shone with blindingly radiant love for creation.

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One could write a whole book about the idea of the body as an absolutely valuable principle in the liturgical literature.

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Yes, liturgical theology awaits its creator.

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God and the world, spirit and flesh, virginity and marriage are antinomic with respect to each other, are in mutual relation of thesis and antithesis.

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As a person is spiritualized, the beauty of one or the other side of the antinomy is emphasized in the consciousness. The antinomy becomes more acute. The thesis and antithesis become more and more incompatible in the rational mind. And, for the higher religious consciousness, the antinomy turns out to be an inwardly unified and inwardly integral spiritual value. Whatever half of the antinomy the spiritualized ascetic takes, its polarly complementary double will become established in the consciousness with a power that is directly proportional to the religious elevation of the ascetic.

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A holy relic (understanding this word both literally and symbolically) is the dry, leafless, and as if dead seed of a holy body: “It will not come to life if it does not die.” According to the higher, spiritual [and dynamic] law of identity, self affirmation lies in self-negation, whereas, according to the lower, fleshly [and static] law of identity, self-negation lies in self-affirmation. Just as a phoenix, building a fire of death for itself like a nest, is reborn in the flame, so the flesh is resurrected in the fiery rejection of itself, because this fiery baptism is only the side of spiritual renewal that is turned toward sin. There is no other way.

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[T]he goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.

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Repentance leads to humility of the heart, i.e., to its dying to everything, the destruction within it of evil selfhood and the lower law of identity. The heart is purified of the filth that has separated it from God and from all creation. And separated by ascesis from separation, the heart becomes chaste. That is, it becomes a heart that selflessly perceives the beauty of creation, and it becomes enflamed with love for all creation. Putting greater or lesser emphasis on the various stages of this path, all ascetics say the same thing.

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