Orthodox Asceticism and Spirituality Group


Irina Paert, University of Tartu (Tartu, Estonia)
Marcus Plested, Marquette University (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)

Steering Committee:

Elina Kahla, University of Helsinski (Helsinki, Finland)
Julia Konstantinovsky, University of Oxford (Oxford, UK)
Oleg Rodionov, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moskva, Russia)


Vision Statement

Orthodox life and thought have always been conditioned by asceticism and spirituality. Our section works with a broad definition of asceticism to include all of the many ways in which Orthodox Christians have historically sought to prepare and train themselves for the Kingdom in body, mind, and spirit. This includes, but is not limited to, the struggle against the passions/vices, prayer, fasting, continence in its multiple forms, and the practice of the virtues. “Spirituality” is a neologism, which we use to denote the various modes and traditions of Orthodox spiritual life and spiritual struggle through the ages. One of the key purposes of this group is to ensure that asceticism and spirituality are not hived off as they might be in some non-Orthodox contexts but are seen in their legitimate place as central expressions of the very lifeblood of Orthodoxy. To this end we are co-sponsoring with the Philosophy of Religion Group a session on the theology of St. Gregory Palamas—a theologian whose dogmatic achievement was obviously and decisively shaped by ascetic practice and experience.

From the monastic movement of the late antique and Byzantine era to the religious post-communist revival, asceticism and spirituality serve to indicate the enduring character of the Orthodox faith. Well-known collections of ascetic writings such as the Apophthegmata patrum, Evergetinos, and Philokalia (Dobrotoljubie) indicate something of the diversity but overall coherence of the Orthodox Christian ascetic and spiritual tradition. Such collections of texts have often stimulated revivals and continue to attract modern theologians and spiritual seekers. Hesychast spirituality and thought, in particular, has been revived on numerous occasions and in recent years has become a basis for the postmodern philosophical and theological synthesis. The resurgence of Orthodox monasticism in the last decades indicates the continued appeal of the monastic way of life to Orthodox Christians. Our group is interested in interpretations of such periodic revivals. As an illustration, at the Inaugural Conference we will sponsor a session on origin, the content, distribution, and impact of the Philokalia.

The group is concerned to give credence to the full spectrum of Orthodox spiritual traditions. For example, it recognizes that the Orthodox spiritual tradition is not reducible to Hesychasm. The group also wishes to explore instances of self-critique within Orthodoxy—such as St. Maria Skobtsova’s criticisms of traditional monasticism and the problems associated with what might be called the monasticization of lay spirituality. It is one of the tasks of this group to demonstrate the evolving and non-monolithic character of Orthodox spirituality, including its cross-fertilization with other Christian and indeed non-Christian religious traditions.

The group is especially interested in the ecumenical aspects of Orthodox spirituality: for example St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite’s constructive and extensive borrowings from Catholic Reformation sources or, more critically, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s suspicion of the prelest (delusion) of non-Orthodox forms of mysticism.

We aim to map out and make visible new research related to this broad and important field, to bring together theologians, church historians, and all those who study both early and modern forms of Orthodox spirituality, and to create a lively and thoughtful forum for reflection on the state of research in the field and its further developments.

Further reflection on the following problematics is envisaged:

1. The apparent gap between lived religion and academic theology

Theology is a realm of prayer, succinctly expressed in the well-known maxim of Evagrius: “If you are a theologian, you pray in truth; if you pray in truth, you are a theologian.” This maxim is often used to emphasize the gap between discursive theology (knowledge about God) and practical or mystical theology (knowledge of God). This juxtaposition is often much overdone and, in fact, the two approaches exist in a creative tension. There has always been something of a gap between academic theology and “lived Orthodoxy”: the Philokalia, for example, was not regarded as a legitimate theological source until the early twentieth century.

We believe that this juxtaposition can be further explored in order to reflect on the identity of theological profession and its place in the academy and in the Church. For example, we can refer to a recent controversy in Russia regarding the possible introduction of theology as an academic discipline, accredited by the state, a decision that stirred much public debate, as an example of the uncertain status of theology in post-communist countries influenced by the Orthodox tradition. Does this controversy support the perception that theology is a form of spirituality but not an academic discipline?

2. Asceticism as a model for construction of national identity

The origins of Orthodox asceticism are in the first centuries of Christian history, yet in some Orthodox contexts it has become possible to monopolize this common heritage for nationalist purposes. In recent studies on Russian spirituality, asceticism is approached as a prism through which one can understand the construction of national identity. For example, in Russia, both spiritual elders and asceticism in general have been considered to be a practice of national and confessional identity, a method of life that both generates and embodies a specifically Russian Orthodox mindset. Similar mindsets can be found among other Orthodox cultures. We would like to invite critical reflection on the attempts to “nationalize” ascetic and spiritual figures, and propose counter-narratives that emphasize supra-national, inter-cultural, and ecumenical aspects of Orthodox asceticism and spirituality. One focus of this could be the multinational, multilingual character of various monastic milieus: Mount Athos, Paisii Velichkovsky’s community in Moldavia, and modern Orthodox monastic communities in the West.

3. Vita activa and vita contemplativa

Another apparent juxtaposition which our groups plans to explore is that between the vita activa and vita contemplativa. As embodied in various controversies throughout Christian history, the understanding of Christian asceticism has varied greatly, most notably perhaps in the Possessors/Non-Possessors controversy. Asceticism can take many forms, embodied in active podvizhnichestvo (service, ministry) in the world and in solitary withdrawal from the world. It would certainly be wrong to perceive the contemplation model as mere escapism. Studies about underground Christian life under communism refer to the persistence of hermitic way of life as a form of resistance to the atheist realm.

The group is also open to identifying further problematics over time.