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Saturday, 16 January 1999 00:00

The righteous asceticism

By Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon

Approaching the end of Ramadan, meanwhile Christians celebrate today the feast of St. Anthony the Great, I felt that I might have to set up a 'bridge' between Christianity and Islam in the limits of this journalistic article. Mayhap my clarification of some points may help us for a joint pondering.
First, we [Christians] don't persuade anyone into asceticism neither do we call a specific person for it. In the Byzantine monastic tonsuring service, which includes the cutting of hair, the bishop gives the scissors to the novice and says unto him: "Take these scissors and hand it to me." This action is repeated three times to reveal that the decision of the novice is freely volunteered.


Second, the celibacy (or the vowed virginity) is never a part of the eastern priest's ministry, for the exception of some extremely rare cases—he is always married in the service of his parish. Even the episcopacy in the East did not adopt the celibacy of bishops until the end of the seventh century. Moreover, this adoption [of celibacy], which we have embraced, was based upon an administrative arrangement and have no dogmatic foundations, and which can be consequently changed in the same manner.
Even in the western Church itself, where the priests are celibate, it is also based upon a patristic benefit, in their understanding, and has no association with the dogma.


Third, we don't have an ascetic basis at all in the New Testament — even if St. Paul did express a personal wish to those who are not "burning with passion" to remain celibate, but if they were, in this case he recommended them to get married (1 Cor. 7). Also, asceticism cannot be extracted front the historical record of Jesus.
Historically, asceticism emerged in the third century AD, in Egypt and Syria—at the same period in my belief. Undoubtedly, it did not emerge from vacuum. There were hermits scattered here and there, and also many that were widowed did not remarry but adopted the prayer rule clinging to the Lord. But the strong movement, which appeared with St. Anthony the Great, was routed in his burly insistence of living the testimony of the Gospel, purifying himself and becoming a calling to the others. Anthony was sad upon the Church of Alexandria while he lived in it; he was saddened for the fall of the nation under luxurious bourgeois way of life, and saddened for its collapse from the seriousness of the New Testament. He could have, like any outward preacher, go to the flock and blame them, and ground them for a renewed paganism in them. But what St. Anthony did instead, was that he willed to renovate himself, hoping that others may renew through this. He possessed what we call the 'spirit of prophecy.' He shied away from verbal instruction in his way to sanctity.


He said, I would employ hardship upon myself. I will take this 'Sermon on the Mount', as it appeared in the sixth and seventh chapters of Mathew, and I will fulfil it entirely, if Grace did descend upon me in the desert to the south of Cairo. Others who desire this fullness, may wish to follow me, and we don't need a monastery (this was founded later), we will be bound with our zeal and no further need for official vows—this also came later when the movement was transformed into an organisation.
This was not an escape from the world — but thus was the interpretation of those who criticised asceticism in later times. What really mattered, is what dwelled in the hearts of this youth that lived in this amazing sanctity there in the desert, and here to the northern Syria between Aleppo and Antioch.
I am not trying to praise the cultural accomplishments of asceticism in this article. The ascetic movement does not need me to say that almost all of what we have in terms of worships (including music and prose), east and west—we owe it all to this movement. I don't need to mention that the greatest part of the Byzantine culture comes forth from it, and that all the heritage of the Georgians, Armenians and Syrians was handed down from it, and also that the first civilising of Russia and Western Europe was possible thanks to it. These are all fruits. I don't care for the praise, especially that many felled and others were misled. What I do really care for is this spiritual warmth, which is highly creative and much requiring.
We, Arab Christians, highly fell-short when we don't spread around, all the Tradition we have. I am not about to compare the great Spiritual Traditions in this article, but whoever was interested in reading the ascetic literature we have, no matter if he adopted it or not, will discover a terrible seriousness in the training methods of rejecting passions and acquiring virtues. He will come to touch how much 'blood' (if I may figuratively describe) these hermits shed in order to receive spiritual benefits. He will come to know the great efforts they exerted to purify their souls from jealousy, from hatred and from all sorts of negligence—in order to be able to love all people and serve and minister unto them—with an amazing humility and meekness.
No doubt, many have entered the ascetic life without a sufficient awareness, or felled thereafter—but what is this compared to the Jesuit tenderness of the great ones? What all these defect, if put in front of this ether-sensibility combined to the knowledge of the human soul and its deliverance from the bonds of sin?



I will stop at this point; extending to Islam whose monastery is Ramadan. In the Sourah of Hadeed [Arabic for Chapter of Iron], the Koran talks about Isa the son of Marium saying: "and We [Allah] gave him [Isa] the Injeel [Arabic for Gospel], and We put in the hearts of those who followed him kindness and mercy; and (as for) asceticism, they innovated it —We did not prescribe it to them—only to seek Allah's pleasure."(Verse 27). The linguistic meaning is clear. God is the sower of asceticism in the heart in conjunction with the meekness and mercifulness. But his saying "they innovated it", is precisely what I have already explained in the beginning of this article—in the sense that the ascetic movement did not descend as a Divine inspiration in the Bible, but rather that humans, after acquiring a divine inspiration, 'innovated it' in the hope of the Divine contentment. But for the next verse's quote saying: "but they did not observe it [asceticism] with its due observance."— Is a positive quote, from the point of view that the monastic organisation could have been better organised but the people corrupted it. The Koran is then never against the inspiration of asceticism by the ascetics, but against the human corruption.
In addition to all this, we have another positive attitude in the Koranic inspiration—not only towards asceticism—but also towards the ascetics themselves for it says: "and you will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those who believe those who say: We are Christians; this is because there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly."(The Dinner Table, verse 83) And continues in the next verse talking about the ascetics saying: "And when they hear what has been revealed to the apostle you will see their eyes overflowing with tears."
But as to the Speech [Oral tradition transmitted from Mohammed's sermons], which says: "There is no asceticism in Islam."—Some say that this Speech is insubstantial [inaccurate], but I am not commendable to discuss this issue. However, independently from the accuracy of the Speech or not, still this Speech did not deny the right of Christians to have their asceticism.


In addition to all this, the Koran recommended celibacy by saying: "and whoever is rich, let him abstain altogether"(The Women, verse 6). Also: "And let those who do not find the means to marry keep chaste until Allah makes them free from want out of His grace."(The Light: 33). And concerning older women it said: "and if they restrain themselves it is better for them."(The Light: 60). At least Islam knows some cases of sexual restraint and does not hate celibacy in general.
I cited all this to conclude that celibacy in Christianity and in Islam is a possible situation, and that between us [Christians and Muslims] there are no real conflicts regarding this matter, and which can not justify the arguments of those who are debating. We, in asceticism, do not contradict what the Koran says: "and the life of this world is nothing but a provision of vanities."(The family of Imran: 185). For Islam, 'the life of this world' is temporal—we don't disagree in Christianity.
But now, that Ramadan—the asceticism of Muslims—came close to an end and that the time for the feast of Fitr [Muslim Passover, celebrated after the fast of Ramadan] is at hand. I implore God, that every day may become a feast for the Muslim—and that the Lord God may offer unto them all glory and honour, and bestow unto them His rich kindness and mercifulness, that this land and the paradise afterward, may become their good habitation. That He will lift up all calamity and humility from among them and that the fullness of their purification may come forth through their hearts. To initiate them, beloved in His way, and residing in His kindness, shadowed by His contentment.
Our joy [Christians] at Fitr is to pray asking for them [Muslims], for ourselves, and for our common motherland peace. That God may relieve them and us in this world, from misery and weakness, that we may pray for them and for ourselves saying the prayer of Isa the son of Marium: "O Allah, our Lord! Send down to us food from heaven which should be to us an ever-recurring happiness, to the first of us and to the last of us, and a sign from Thee, and grant us means of subsistence, and Thou art the best of the Providers."(The Dinner Table: 114). O Lord God, give us in this coming Fitr, a table for all who believe in Thee and for those who are hungry, and that none may perish under tyranny—enabling them to rejoice in Thy blessings—Thou who holdest in Thy hand the Kingdom of all.
While some rejoice today [St. Anthony's]—and some others will rejoice tomorrow, or the day after [depending on the moon's first-day appearance]—guide us O Lord, to Thy Benevolent Face.

Published January 16, 1999 in the © An-Nahar, Lebanese news paper. Translated from original Arabic.