Ascetical Theology and Christian Psychology
by Kevin Goodrich, O.P.
Ascetical theology is the study of the spiritual life or the study of the way of perfection. Classically, it traces its roots to the early fathers and mothers (desert and otherwise), but has been practiced by Christians of different stripes since the beginning. It could be said that our Lord Himself outlined the foundation principles of ascetical theology in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus makes it plain that the spiritual life cannot be limited to outward behavioral conformity, but must include a transformation of an individual’s inward disposition. Murder and adultery can – spiritually speaking – be committed in the heart, with words, as well as in the body (Matthew 5:22-3, 28). Ascetical theology, like modern expressions of Christian psychology, takes seriously the notion that our inward and outer lives matter to God and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, each can of us can be transformed, inside and out (Romans 12:1-2).
These early pioneers of authentic Christian psychology lacked our modern worldview, insights, and technology. Yet, they possessed an entirely God-shaped anthropology of the human being and approached human pathology through a sacramental grid that measured human well-being against the image of Jesus Christ. Their practice of soul-care was not isolated to predetermined counseling appointments, though many of the fathers received “clients” for what we might call “therapeutic encounters.” For example, take this encounter between two desert fathers or abbas as presented in John Chryssavgis’ classic, Into the Heart of the Desert:
Abba Isaac came to see Abba Poemen and found him washing his feet. As he enjoyed freedom of speech with the old man, he asked: “How is it that others practice austerity and treat their bodies harshly?” Abba Poemen replied: “We have not been taught to kill our bodies, but to kill our passions.”
Ascetical theology is deeply concerned with the removal of the passions, such as those enumerated by the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:19-26). The ascetical theologians were almost always pastoral in their orientation, meaning their writing and their work was reflective of practical experience with struggling Christians. The progress of the Christian from immaturity to Christ-likeness was generally understood to be a slow process. God’s grace was essential to its development, while human cooperation could facilitate or hinder this development. Another example, from the same text:
Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he prayed to God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man about this: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy,” he said. The old man said to him: “Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have. For, it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” So he besought God, and when the warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but he said: “Lord, give me strength for the fight.”
Ascetical theology assumes a positive role of suffering. A healthy dose of this perspective would be a good counter-weight to the increasing desire by modern people – including Christians – for a life free of suffering. The New Testament recognizes the purifying effect of opposition and suffering and is not inconsistent with the teaching of the fathers (e.g. Romans 5:1-5). This is an area that requires careful discernment by modern day Christian psychologists. What pathologies should be relieved to the extent possible? Which should not be relieved? Does wise counsel mean encouraging clients to endure under suffering or to does wise counsel mean encouraging clients to escape such suffering? These are questions that no formula or theory can comprehensively address. Ascetical theology as practiced by the fathers would approach such situations by way of the specific and not the general.
Ascetical theology’s emphasis on progressive sanctification, sometimes also referred to as the pursuit of holiness, has caused some modern readers to worry about legalism. Every tradition of Christianity has fallen prey to this danger, including those espousing the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Ascetical theology is an entirely grace based pursuit. What distinguishes it from some other theologies of the Christian life is that it is entirely realistic about the role that human volition and human nature play in the development of Christ-likeness. The early fathers and mothers while open to counseling others were always keen to remember that their principal loyalty was to God and to the development of their own soul. This meant they approached the work of counseling very carefully:
Abba Poemen said: “Instructing one’s neighbor is for the person who is whole and without passion. For what is the use of building the house of another, while destroying one’s own?”
This is the sort of self-care that contemporary Christian psychologists should claim for their own. The ascetical practitioner – usually known today as a disciple of Jesus – pursues God relentlessly and knocks down all competing idols, whether they are sinful passions or the work of ministry itself. In this, and many other ways, ascetical theology is a valuable resource for Christian psychologists today. It provides more than clever sayings and occasional insights that line up with contemporary psychological findings. Instead, ascetical theology roots the discipline of soul care in a lived relationship with God, where holiness of life and closeness to Christ merit more – while not devaluing– formal education and practical technique.
The Rev’d Canon Dr. Kevin Goodrich, O.P., is the Third Master of the Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans).