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Posted February 17, 2005

Book: The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition
Author: Gavin Flood
Cambridge University Press, NY, pp. 288

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

This book is about the ascetic self in the scriptural religions of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. The author claims that asceticism can be understood as the internalisation of tradition, the shaping of the narrative of a life in accordance with the narrative of tradition that might be seen as the performance of the memory of tradition. Such a performance contains an ambiguity or distance between the general intention to eradicate the will, or in some sense to erase the self, and the affirmation of will in ascetic performance such as weakening the body though fasting. Asceticism must therefore be seen in the context of ritual. The book also offers a new paradigm for comparative religion more generally, one that avoids the inadequate choices of either examining religions through overarching categories on the one hand or the abandoning of any comparative endeavor that focuses purely on area-specific study on the other.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The nature of the things we contemplate, says Maximus, enters the mind and teaches it. If the object of the mind is pure, the mind will conform to that state, the purest object of contemplation being God. Maximus the Confessor writes:

The mind, in receiving the representations of things, is naturally patterned after each representation; in contemplating them spiritually, it is diversely conformed to each object of contemplation. When it comes to be in God, it is entirely without form and without pattern. For on contemplating Him who is simple, it becomes simple and wholly transfused with light.

In one sense it is this process that allows for divinisation. Through the contemplation of God the mind conforms to that transcendent object. The mind joins to God and so become God-like. Through contemplation of divine light the person becomes filled with divine light. Again, Maximus is not alone in presenting this idea. His precursor is Evagrius, who says that the wandering mind keeps us away from pure prayer, which lifts the mind up to God and strips the mind naked before him. Prayer is the expulsion of all thoughts. It is this structure that is behind the tradition of light mysticism in the Orthodox tradition. Through the purification of the mind in ascetic struggle, the development of the virtues, and grace the self takes on divine qualities such as the virtues of faith, hope an love. But his is not simply a moral development, the eradication of the vices and development of the virtues, but a development of contemplation and a realisation of the way in which the structures of consciousness relate to the structures of the cosmos. The purification of the mind or elimination of thought, according to these early Christian thinkers, allows us to see the light of God in interiority like a sparkling sapphire, strongly suggesting a particular kind of interiority as constitutive of the ascetic self: an inner perception of light understood as the remembrance of the Trinity, yet which is simultaneously a self-forgetting or ecstasy.

The practice of morality or development of virtue needs to be accompanied by the contemplation of creation and scripture, as Paul Blowers observes, to allow for the transition to deification. Maximus presents us with an analysis of human drives and a fundamental moral struggle with the passions which is linked to an analysis of the cosmos. The way the mind operates is connected to the way the universe operates, and the work of redemption is keyed in to the cosmic structure. Thus, in spite of the fallen nature of the world, the logos is reflected or incarnated not only in Christ himself but also in created being and in scriptures. The ‘intelligences or logoi that are pre-existent in God are held together, although differentiated, within the logos and manifested in the world.

Table of Contents:

I Setting the parameters

Part I The Ascetic Self in Text and History
2. The asceticism of work: Simone Weil
3. The asceticism of action: the Bhagavad-gita and Yoga-sutras
4. The asceticism of action: tantra
5. The asceticism of the middle way
6. The asceticism of the desert
7. The asceticism of love and wisdom

Part II Theorising the Ascetic Self
8. The ritual formation of the ascetic self
9. The ascetic self and modernity