Sunday, February 6, 2011

Matt Talbot--Urban Ascetic

Urban Asceticism
February 17, 2009

The subject of urban asceticism is of particular interest for the modern man. Though many people with a spiritual mind and soul are seeking solitude and the inner life, the material and social fabrics of their lives do not permit them to lead out the ideal life of silence. This comes with the conviction that there must be some forms of silence and solitude in order to come closer to the inner life. But it is also understood that it is not merely through silence and solitude that one comes closer to the inner life, and the comprehension of man’s destiny, but also through living simply, ascetically, and humbly.

There is something natural and inherently human about the life of silence and contemplation. It is something that is prevalent in almost every society, beginning with the ancients to this modern day. We find hermits, ascetics, and solitary mystics in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient India and China, as well as the traditions of early Pagans. The term asceticism itself is derived from the Greek word askesis, meaning exercise. It is here that we should start, with the origin of the term, and its meaning in late antiquity to its practitioners. Today the term “asceticism” conjures up many mixed images for the layman, and too often these images are of extreme self-torture, and are not at all associated with the heart of original asceticism, nor its true nature, practice, and goal. Yes, there are extreme forms of asceticism, and they can be found in early Christian Desert Fathers such as Baradatus and Marana and Cyra, as well as certain Sadhus in India and Buddhist’s in Thailand. Extreme asceticism is best described as voluntary torture of the body, that is the deprivation of food, sleep, comfort; exposing the body to severe weather conditions; tormenting oneself with lack of personal space and dignity. However, there are other forms of asceticism, which are far more different and are in fact much more natural then one would perceive. Often this form of extreme asceticism is chastised by all great religions as unneeded.

But we should not look at extreme asceticism with chastisement as well. Extreme asceticism serves a very vital purpose in the spiritual life. Often it is taken up by those who have worked for many years perfecting this type of spiritual existence, often suffering great health risks at the process, and almost always with some sort of spiritual mentor who is a trained and expert ascetic. The extreme ascetics perform such acts of self-denial as a testament to faith, as an extreme example to everyone, especially those who cannot understand the spiritual life through other means, of the greatness of faith – that something as simple as faith can allow a man to withstand the rigors of such hardships, that faith can allow a man to live without almost any food for decades, that it can allow a man to live well into his 90s living in the open air without any form of comfort. It is often these types of actions that have inspired the faithless, and that is why they had existed in the fourth and fifth centuries in such great numbers, because many people could not believe in Christianity simply by the word alone – they needed cold hard prove of miracles, and seeing a man like Simeon Stylites living atop a pillar, in the brutal Syrian heat, eating only once a week, praying continuously for over 45 years.

But let us get back to asceticism as “exercise.” Because that is exactly what it is, it is a spiritual struggle and a spiritual exercise. Like an athlete of the Olympic games, the athlete of Asceticism practices daily under a strict regimen. The athlete of Asceticism has a strict diet, a strict set of codes that one must live by, in order to attain the height of wisdom. Much like the athlete yearns for the Gold Medal, so the ascetic and solitary yearns for the medal of wisdom, peace, and joy. And much like the athlete of the sport, the ascetic athlete must struggle daily to reach for that height. However the athlete’s struggle for gold lasts only several years, or maybe even only a season, while the ascetic’s and the solitary’s lasts a lifetime.

This exercise, however, has always been associated with the stillness of empty spaces, especially the desert. It is common to understand that if we are to find peace and silence within, we must first venture to the place where there is silence without. However, this must not always be the case, and I believe that many examples exist of ascetics, of solitaries, hermits, who live within the urban environment, exercising asceticism daily; because one could live in the desert of silence and find no peace either.

Today, there are hundreds of hermits and ascetics living within urban environment. Perhaps the one that has garnered the most attention is the Catholic hermit living in Philadelphia, Richard Withers, who has been a canonized hermit in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since 2001. Many of those who have led ascetic lives have actually lived them among many people, and the environment is not a major player. Even such extreme ascetics as Francis of Assisi and Simeon Stylites, spent much of their later lives around a whole group of followers. Urban asceticism is simply something that has not yet garnered too much notice, as they might be among us, but we would never know. It is much easier to notice a strange hermit living on the outskirts of town in a self-made cave, then it is to notice a man or woman of piety living a life of forced poverty and penance, silence, and humility among us. Matt Talbot was such a person, and yet no one had any idea of what he was doing daily. Perhaps that is the interesting role of the urban ascetic, is that it is even more humble, for his or her actions are not done in the wide open fields or on tops of columns for all to see and venerate, but it is done in the silence and privacy of walls, here there is nothing between them and God but silence.

Note: Another article by the same author on asceticism that mentions Matt Talbot can be found at: