Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. Not simply a fast, it is a time for that true asceticism which, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.”
There is something of this true asceticism, even if imperfect and incomplete, at the basis of all human society. One must, even to only a small extent, renounce self-will to be a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe, not to mention a city, state, or nation. No community can exist or has existed without some semblance of this asceticism. Every member must deny some part of his or her self for a perceived common good in order to form any community, in order for society itself to exist.
Thus, asceticism is not and never has been reserved for monks in the history of the Church. As Florovsky notes, “Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world.” Interestingly, Vladimir Solovyov even goes so far as to identify marriage as one of the first ascetic practices inasmuch as it constitutes a “limitation of sensuality” that results in increased “control of carnal passions.”
In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife likely find that the level of self-renunciation necessary to maintain family life extends far beyond the sensual as well. Indeed, during his address at Acton University this summer, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America remarked,
Is there any greater ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, to change the diapers? That’s the image, that’s asceticism—it’s total self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love.
On a personal note, my wife and I are currently celebrating the birth of our first child, and (to my wife’s credit) I can confirm the truth of His Beatitude’s statement. (Don’t worry, I change diapers too, but my wife deserves far more credit for “get[ing] up at all hours.”) According to Florovsky, through asceticism “a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed.” Certainly, any other new parents would agree with me that having a baby literally changes one’s whole world. Suddenly things I used to value seem so insignificant.
Through marriage I was transformed into a husband. Through the birth of my son, I am now also a father. As Christians, both of the East and the West, embark on the ascetic, spiritual journey of Great Lent that culminates in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope that all of us will also be spiritually transformed according to the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love.