Christ Our Pascha defines ascesis, a word derived from Greek, as exercise.
The term “spiritual exercises” is derived ascesis.
Ascesis has two other meanings important to the Church Fathers: Practice and athletic training.
In fact, the Church Fathers often describe those who take up ascetical practice as athletes for Christ.
When we take up ascesis, we renounce sin and cooperate with the Lord as he purifies us and cleanses us from our sins.
The Christian who takes up ascesis, St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:21, becomes “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
In renouncing sin, Paul reminds us, we refuse to give in to our passions and so also become “instruments of righteousness.”
Sin is “the refusal to obey God.” Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. Their sin separated humanity from God.
Sin also separates us from family and neighbor.
Sin brought death and illness into the world.
Sin can be thought of as an illness, because it deprives us of spiritual health.
Ascesis, therefore, is therapeutic for us, because it restores us to and keeps us in spiritual health.
Since the sin of Adam and Eve, human beings are inclined to sin. When we sin, we choose to reject God and God’s commandments.
Our Lord teaches us that we should love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. When we sin, we break both of these commandments, a summary of the decalogue.
James 2:10-11 reminds us that when we break one commandment we are guilty of failing to follow the entirety of God’s law.
When we commit one sin, we also commit additional sins.
The Eight Thoughts, Vices, or Capital Sins in Evagrius, Cassian, and Pope Gregory
Evagrius Ponticus, (345-399), also called Evagrius the Solitary, is credited with developing a system for understanding what we call the eight deadly thoughts (thoughts are also called logismoi, from the Greek), vices, or capital sins.
Evagrius covers this material in The Praktikos, On Thoughts, Eulogios, and On the Eight Thoughts. He also makes a reference to the thoughts in Chapters on Prayer.
Thoughts, Evagrius tells us, have three sources: Angels, demons, and ourselves. The vices generally are thought of as demons.
St. John Cassian (360-435), who was a disciple of Evagrius and later of St. John Chrysostom, introduced the eight vices to the Latin Church.
A thorough explanation of the vices and their remedies is contained in Cassian’s The Institutes.
Cassian also covers this material in The Conferences, a long work that one noted translator of these works, Boniface Ramsey, says gives us the feel of the desert.
Ramsey notes that Cassian’s works have had a great influence on Western monasticism and civilization.
From the time of St. Benedict until today, Cassian’s works have remained an important source of spiritual reading for Benedictines.
Pope Gregory the Great learned of the eight vices through Cassian. He then transformed these vices into what is known in the West as the Seven Deadly Sins.
To fully understand the eight thoughts and their opposites, one must study deeply the writings of Evagrius and Cassian.
Evagrius and Cassian provide the foundation for understanding ascetical practice.
Although similar to the list given in Christ Our Pascha, which is attributed to St. John of Damascus, the list of eight thoughts Evagrius writes of is slightly different.
Evagrius speaks of gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, and pride.
His order is significant. The three fundamental thoughts are gluttony, avarice, and vainglory, Evagrius tells us in On Thoughts (in Evagrius of Pontus, The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz).
Gluttony, avarice, and vainglory are the vices on the front line, Evagrius tells us. They wound us so that we are placed under the demon’s power and then fall into other sins.
“All the other demons march along behind these ones and in their turn take up with the people wounded by these. For example, it is not possible to fall into the hands of the spirit of fornication, unless one has fallen under the influence of guttony....”
We fall into anger, he says further, when we are “fighting for food or wealth or esteem.”
We become sad when we are “deprived of all these things, or ... unable to obtain them.”
Evagrius, an astute reader of Scripture, tells us that this is why Satan tempted Our Lord with these three sins in the desert.
Evagrius addresses the vices from the psychological position of the human being. His order allows us to see how the vices and, therefore, sins are related.
Understanding these relations allows us to cooperate with God’s grace and to work more effectively against our sins.
Cassian provides the same list and order.
Pope Gregory the Great’s list includes these seven vices in a different order from the list developed by Evagrius. He places pride in the first position. His list: Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
How each of these writers addresses the vices and virtues is similar.
The Eight Capital Sins and Their Opposite Virtues in Christ Our Pascha
The list of the eight capital sins and their opposites found in Christ Our Pascha are drawn from On the Eight Evil Spirits by St. John of Damascus (675 or 676-749), who was influenced by the works of Evagrius. His list, however, differs slightly from the list developed by Evagrius.
Guttony and Temperance
We need to eat and drink to survive.
Some, however, turn food and drink into idols.
We turn food and drink into idols when we either eat and drink primarily for pleasure rather than for sustenance and we eat and drink to excess.
In such situations, we fail to exhibit self-control; we fail to use food and drink appropriately; we misuse the body and so damage the soul.
We call this behavior gluttony.
Overindulgence of this type leads to our overindulging in other ways; excessive spending or collecting, for example.
Temperance is the virtue that helps us defeat gluttony.
By temperance we mean moderation. When we have the virtue of temperance, we exhibit self-control, self-restraint. We control our desires.
Fasting and abstinence help us grow in the virtue of temperance.
Lust and Wholeness of Being
Evagrius tells us in On the Eight Thoughts that “Abstinence gives birth to chastity; gluttony is the mother of licentiousness.”
Sexual desire is natural. Lust, Christ Our Pascha tells us, is “the unrestrained and disordered quest for bodily gratification.”
Fornication, adultery, pornography, prostituion, and all types of disordered sexual activity result from lust.
Lust enslaves us and is related to gluttony.
Evargius tells us in On the Eight Thoughts:
“The one who fills his stomach and then announces that he is chaste is like one who says he can hold in check the action of fire in a reed. In the same way that it is impossible to restrain the momentum of rushing fire through a reed, so is it impossible to stop the licentiousness impulse that is fired by satiety.”
Fornication and satiety are allies, Evagrius tells us. Fight fornication and satiety will leave as well.
Our sexual desire becomes ordered through wholeness of being, which helps us to become chaste.
When we are chaste, we love neighbor and self as God intends.
Christ Our Pascha states: “Chastity allows a person to control one’s sexual impulse and restores the harmony of body, soul, and spirit.”
Avarice and Generosity
“Avarice is a passion for money and material goods.”
Avarice, or love of money and material goods, is not part of our nature. It is a distortion of our nature.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “Wealth is not a bad thing, but avarice and love of money are. A covetous person is one thing, and a rich person is another.”
The virtue that opposes avarice is generosity.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “Arm your right hand against him [the devil] ... stow away all your fortune in your mind, and instead of a chest and a house, let heaven keep your gold.”
St. John Chrysostom reminds us, therefore, that our minds should be set on heavenly things, not earthly.
Melancholy and Joy in the Holy Spirit
Melancholy is a desire for something that cannot satisfy us. It is type of a anxiety. It can lead to depression, despair, and to suicide.
Melancholy differs from sorrow for your sins, which can be salvific; melancholy is a form of self-inflicted suffering that leads away from God.
Joy in the Holy Spirit, or rejoicing in the Lord is the opposite virtue. Prayer, therefore, is essential.
Anger and Long-Suffering
The Fathers speak of three types of anger:
Anger can result in violence and murder.
Anger divides us from others and can result in war.
“The most fierce passion is anger,” Evagrius tells us in The Praktikos. “In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring of wrath against one who has given injury—or is thought to have done so.”
Long-suffering, a quality ascribed to Our Lord, is patience and gentleness. A long-suffering person has strong faith and trust in God.
Acedia and Cheerfulness
Acedia, the attack from the noonday demon, has been called the illness of our times. The Fathers define acedia, or despondency, “as exhaustion and fatigue of the soul.”
Other words used to describe acedia are boredom, depression, listlessness, and sloth.
Acedia robs us of our hope in God.
Evagrius writes in The Praktikos that:
“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all.... he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself....”
Prayer helps us fight acedia, but many find it difficult to pray or are distracted in prayer when attacked by this demon.
This is why one attacked by the demon of acedia must pray despite a lack of desire or distractions.
One must, again, rejoice in the Lord to fight this demon.
Psalm 12 teaches us: “They that afflict me will rejoice if I am shaken; but as for me, I have hoped in Thy mercy. My heart will rejoice in Thy salvation.” (Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery)
Praying the Our Father, the Angelic Salutation (the Hail Mary in the West), and short verses from the Psalms such as the one above from Psalm 12 are effective during these times.
Praying with the body is also effective; for example, making a number of prostrations.
Vainglory and Humble-Mindedness
The vainglorious seek and thrive on the approval of others. They seek esteem.
They seek attention. They seek praise. They seek honors and glory.
They seek to be found among the powerful. They seek power over others for themselves.
They are boasters.
They are attached to earthly goods.
Many today suffer from this sin, both inside and outside the Church.
Humble-mindedness allows us to know that we are created and not the creator.
Humble-mindedness allows us to accept all that occurs in our lives and to offer all to God’s glory.
The humble-minded can say with Job: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10, RSV)
The humble-minded are like the monks Cassian describes who seek quiet and solitude and prayer and are not seduced by the temptations of the world.
Pride and Humility
While the vainglorious seek earthly honors and glory, the prideful ascribe to themselves powers that belong only to God.
Pride, the devil’s sin, is considered “the most dangerous passion and the mother of all sins.”
Pride is at the root of many of the sinful behaviors we find in our culture today.
The prideful love themselves. They fail to see their own sins.
They believe that all they have comes from their own actions and have nothing to do with God’s mercy and grace.
Their necks are stiff and their hearts are hard.
The cure for the illness of pride is humility.
Repentance: Walking in the Commandments, Guided by Jesus Christ
Christ Our Pascha teaches that “Repentance forms the foundation of Christian spirituality.”
If we are to make the most of the wisdom the Church Fathers have given us concerning the virtues and vices, we must become repentant.
Like the prodigal son, the repentant return home to the Father.
In returning home to God, the repentant turn away from sin.
Through repentance, we embrace humility.
Repentant, we walk in the way of God’s commandments guided by the light of Jesus Christ.
Repantance is not a one-time event in our lives. Instead, it is a daily commitment.
When we live a life of repentance we grow closer to God.
Through the mercy of God, repentance frees us from sin. Repentance opens our hearts to God’s grace.
Christ Our Pascha tells us:
“The closer we come to God, the more clearly we see how sinful we are. The light of Christ illumines us and leads us to repentance, to a vision of beauty rather than deformity, to an awareness of God’s glory rather than our own destitution.”
[Notes to our talk on “An Ascesis which Purifies,” pages 246-255 in Christ Our Pascha; some material is derived from works by Evagrius and St. John Cassian mentioned above.]