Being an Ascetic in the City
“There were…a few who had the strength to rise above the turmoil of the world and to flee from the agitation of cities. Having escaped this turbulence, they embraced the monastic life and reproduced in themselves the pattern of apostolic virtue.”
“They ignored the world, being above human passions.”
– Neilos the Ascetic, “Ascetic Discourse”
There are many days in modern life when the idea of running away from it all is very appealing. Leaving behind long commutes, difficult co-workers or bosses, bursting weekend schedules, constant home and auto maintenance and errands to run sounds like heaven. But for me and probably most people reading this blog (with an internet connection), running away isn’t a real option. We have been placed in the turmoil of the world, and feel the turbulence of modern life every day. How are we to respond to Neilos’ extreme calls to abandon everything for the solitude and simplicity of an ascetic life with God?
I struggle with this call to “ignore the world,” which sounds like escapism, and am quick to hold up Scripture that tells us the opposite. In John 17, Jesus prays to his Father for the apostles: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” This call for engagement with the world is central to my understanding of how we are to spread the Gospel, but at first look, Neilos seems to be at odds with it.
Looking more closely at the words of Jesus in John 17, he does not tell us to blindly plunge into city life as we engage the world. Jesus recognizes three things are needed for us to be successful in being sent into the world: he asks that we be kept from the evil one, sanctified by the truth of the Father’s word, and sent out with the same support and connection to Christ as he has to his Father. Though Jesus is asking these three things of his Father, clearly we are participants in resisting the evil one, being sanctified, and connecting deeply to Christ. Being faithful witnesses in the world requires that we pursue a deep connection with the source of these gifts, so perhaps Neilos’ call can be seen as an invitation to spend time apart from the world, going deeper and deeper with God, for alone can protect, prepare, and transform us in our sent-ness. In this way, Neilos’ call aligns with Jesus’ prayer for us.
The witness of Neilos in the depth of his relationship with God is astounding. By orienting his life around stillness before God, he instructs with simplicity, clarity, and power. His writing centers above all else on the pursuit of holiness, and its power to confront the world. Through this pursuit, Neilos cuts through so much noise. In my own life I yearn to peel away distractions, busyness, and overcommitted-ness as Neilos has. Of possessions, he asks “Why do we attach such a value to material things…why do we cling to money and possessions, and disperse our intellect [the eye of our heart] among a host of useless cares?” One of the truest realities of our “life in the city” is that the eyes of our hearts become dispersed among a host of useless cares.
This past year, I have been too busy, too distracted, and the eye of my heart has bounced around to whatever called the loudest. I long for the stillness and solitude with God that Neilos models, as it’s for this I was created. Ecclesiastes 7:29 says: “See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.” The Good News Translation makes it even clearer: “This is all that I have learned: God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.” Our ability to invent schemes and complications seems to grow exponentially with time—all for what?
Christ modeled simple connection to his Father perfectly. In Mark 1, sandwiched between Jesus healing the sick late into the night and his disciples tracking him down because crowds were searching for him, we find this verse: “in the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house, and went to a lonely place to pray there.” This is the heart of Christian life in the world. Following this example, and to participate in the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer for us in John, all Christians are called to be Little Ascetics. The essence of this is connecting in stillness to God to be equipped for life in the world. Three practical ways this can be done are:
- As Neilos says, “embrace solitude, the mother of wisdom.” This includes setting aside focused time and using the moments of solitude we are given as they come throughout the day.
- Guard our hearts and minds with a lattice. Neilos says: “Just as the lattices round the altar prevented anything unclean from entering, so we should weave a mental barrier against the senses.” Do we take seriously enough the images and ideas we let into our heart?
- Under-indulgence and under-stimulation: let stillness allow the passions and a focus on the fickle to fade.
Only in leaving the culture of the world for time with our Creator and Redeemer can we know our true purpose and source of life. May you be blessed in your time with Him.