Last week I ended my blog by mentioning desert dwellers such as Antony the Great and the contribution their thoughts and practices can make to our own spiritual lives. The experience of these ancient believers consistently tells us that it is impossible to stay spiritually healthy, attuned to the movement of God’s Spirit, engaged with Scripture, and grounded in worship, without adopting and practicing some form of ascesis (pronounced as-KEE-sis”) or exercise.” Ascesis is an ancient term from which we get our English word asceticism.” This connection may be jarring for some Protestants, for whom asceticism is associated primarily with certain medieval practices that seemed to emphasize works rather than faith and grace.

The idea of ascetic practices, though, is found in the Bible. The apostle Paul commonly refers to Christian living in terms of the metaphor of an athletic competition and the kind of strict training” (1 Cor. 9:25) that such competition requires. What sort of strict training might contemporary discipleship necessitate? In order to answer this question, let’s unpack the biblical metaphor a bit more. 

All athletes in ancient Greece maintained a strict ascesis or training program that included a specific diet, certain precise (depending on the athlete’s particular sport) hours of training on a daily basis, and so on. Ascesis was difficult, demanding, even grueling; it was usually repetitive, and often boring, occurring as it did behind the scenes, apart from the public’s gaze. Yet if an athlete was lazy or unmotivated, neglecting the prescribed regimen, it would have been naïve to expect to succeed in the stadium or the arena. For each regimen was designed to develop the specific skills needed for excellence in a particular sport. 

Long-distance runners engaged in one type of ascesis. Wrestlers practiced another. Occasionally, the connection between a certain part of the training and the sport itself might not be immediately apparent; then the athletes had to trust that their trainers knew the sport well enough to select exercises that were appropriate. But everyone agreed that a well-designed ascesis, under the eyes of an expert coach, was the key to honing the athlete’s innate abilities and enabling performance at peak levels throughout the competition. 

This athletic metaphor sheds light on the practices of many of the great pastors, teachers, bishops, and theologians of the ancient church, wise believers who habitually engaged in some specific ascesis, some spiritual training program designed to enhance, enliven, and deepen their relationship with God. This regular training frequently included both secular and spiritual practices (since spiritual growth never occurs in isolation from intellectual, emotional, and cultural factors), but its heart was the practice of key spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, study, meditation, confession, simplicity, and service. Such practices – then and now – promote the healing and shaping of the human personality ever more fully into the image of Christ, so that Christ’s disciples can think about and live in the mystery of God with increasing clarity, insight, and power. 

There are four morsels of counsel from the ancient world that we want to chew on in our last few blogs on the mystery of God; each is an important part of almost any thoughtful, intentional, spiritual ascesis. What must contemporary Christians do if we want to follow the path of disciplined pursuit of the knowledge of God? Next week we’ll take a look at the first piece of advice ancient Christians would offer us: we must cultivate sacred space in the midst of our busy world. See you then. 

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.