Asceticism, Well-Being, and Compassion

AIOCS’ founding director, Doru Costache, published a new book chapter, ‘Asceticism, Well-Being, and Compassion in Maximus the Confessor.’ The essay features in a volume edited by Peter G. Bolt and James R. Harrison, Justice, Mercy, and Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Eugene: Pickwick, 2020: 134-47), representing the second major publication resulting from Sydney College of Divinity’s Wellbeing Project (2015-2018).

Abstract: In his Chapters on Love, which should be seen as a treatise on asceticism and compassion, Saint Maximus discussed a significant theme for the monastic milieus to which the work was addressed, as well as the Christian experience in general. Contrary to the views, seemingly held by many monastics of his time, the Confessor proposed that virtue, particularly dispassion, could not be the ultimate goal of ascetic endeavours. Granted, once achieved dispassion was the sign of one’s healing from the wounds of sin and a secure pathway to personal wellbeing. But dispassion was more than that. It amounted to an ecstatic way off one’s selfishness, conducive to genuine love, compassion, and generosity. For the Confessor, whilst sheer compassion was impossible without personal ascetic or virtuous reformation, virtue remained imperfect if one did not become godlike, loving all people equally. Thus, in Chapters on Love the Maximian algorithm of the spiritual life—which referred to ascesis, dispassion, and love—presupposed an experience of transformation, the metamorphosis of the self from one concerned with its own wellbeing into one capable of compassionate abnegation or altruism. After mapping the overall Maximian teaching on the spiritual life in Chapters on Love, this chapter focuses on the complex relation of asceticism and altruism espoused therein. Its aim is to challenge the current notion of wellbeing, defined in materialistic and selfish terms, by pointing out, in the light of Saint Maximus’ wisdom, that fullness and happiness remain illusory as long as one does not embrace the ascetic, transformative path which leads to personal redefinition as a compassionate being, sensitive to the presence and needs of others.

The text of the chapter can be accessed here for free.