When we discuss the ascetical life, we’re generally pretty comfortable with prayer and fasting. In fact, not all that uncommon for Orthodox Christians to brag about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting–even if we, personally, don’t attend the lenten service or keep the fast all that closely!
But in the tradition of the Church, asceticism isn’t simply prayer and fasting. Almsgiving and manual labor are (or should be) essential ascetical disciplines.
Building on the sacraments, the goal of the ascetical life is to restore us to the beauty we had in the Garden before the Fall of our first Parents. To borrow from the Canon of St Andrew that’ll we’ll hear soon, asceticism is meant to lift from my heart the “heavy burden” of sin and reveal “the beauty of my original image” created to reflect God’s glory.
Asceticism liberates us and makes us beautiful!
Like I said, we usually limit our conversation about asceticism to prayer and fasting and neglect almsgiving and manual labor. But we should introduce young people all four ascetical disciplines. Why do I say this?
Through prayer and fasting, I reshape my heart and make it more sensitive and responsive to God’s grace. The ascetical disciplines of manual labor and almsgiving allow me to shape the world around me and my relationship with others— including the poor— in a manner that reflects Christ. Just as prayer and fasting sanctify soul and body, almsgiving and manual labor are the means by which I sanctify the material world and therefore human society as well.
Look at the desert fathers. What did those great ascetics do?
They would often live in places where they had access to palm leaves. The monks would weave these leaves into mats and baskets while they prayed, then sell their handiwork to support themselves. Whatever was not needed to meet their own, minimal expenses would be given to the poor. So for these first monks, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor, all work together.
Introducing young people to almsgiving and manual labor helps them understand that they can, personally, make a contribution that helps others.
Asking young people to work is very different than asking young people to raise money through raffles or selling candy. Asking them to work to raise money to help those in need communicates to them there is something noble to work.
It also can help young people understand that beyond meeting our own needs, work is something we do for others. I don’t just work to make my life better; I work to make your life better as well.