Asceticsm and Motherhood

Cave MonestaryToday we were privileged to visit the Cave Monastery in Kiev.  It was gorgeous, absolutely breathtaking.  The architecture, the centuries old artwork, the rich history and prayerful ambiance, all settled picturesquely on the hillside overlooking the beautiful Dnieper River and its bustling city.

I attempted very much to keep a prayerful disposition and mind during our visit, but the little ones were already tired by the time we made it there today and keeping them quiet and nearby was more than enough of a task in itself.

There is so much I would like to say about our visit to this ancient and beautiful place, but this isn’t a book so I will have to limit myself!  Speaking of books, I recently saw a book title that read “The Ascetic Life of Mothers”.  It was a prayer book, but the title was so intriguing to me, as I have thought about this often myself.

Asceticism sometimes gets a bad rap in Lutheran circles, but I have always had an ascetic leaning, and I heartily defend it as perfectly compatible with the Scriptures and Christian living.  But let’s define it first, just in case.  Merriam-Webster’s 1st definition is as follows: “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline”.

I contend that in each of us Christians there is an ascetic, washed in Holy Baptism and strengthened with the Body of Christ; that Christ in each of us yearns to deny our worldly pleasures and seek instead the Kingdom of God.  When we deny ourselves comforts or enjoyments in order to better serve God and others – that is an ascetic act.  It is vocation and service and love, the greatest love!  For it is a self-sacrificing love, giving up our own life in order that others may have it to the full.  It is nothing else but the very picture of Christ’s love for us.

As we walked through the caves and I stood in these chambers, rooms that we Americans would consider small for even a bathroom, I was in awe of the great love that these monks must have possessed.  To give up any semblance of a normal life, to retreat into these dark, underground caves to live out the rest of their earthly lives…

Many of these monks would choose a small area inside the cave, and then build up a brick wall around their cell so that no one could come in and that he could not come out.  He would never be seen again, and the only way they knew when he had fallen asleep in Christ is when the food would no longer disappear from the little slot they placed it in for him.  Once that happened, they would seal the slot to make a complete brick wall and that would be his coffin and grave.

It sounds so foreign and strange.  Why would anyone do that, and who are they really helping?  But it is not for us to judge another’s calling from God.  John the Baptist spent decades in solitude in the desert before beginning his short earthly ministry.  If it truly is our goal as Christians to seek Christ above all else and not be distracted by worldly things, what better way than to lock oneself in a cave?  Am I right?

Of course, this is not a post suggesting all (or even many!) Christians should take up such a severe form of asceticism.  I would wager that it is likely most seasoned monks would not even be prepared for such a task.  But God does call each of us to our own ascetic life, and it looks different for everyone.

Motherhood is one form of asceticism.  Does not even the Bible say women shall be saved through childbearing?  What is it about raising children that is so sanctifying and purifying?  Motherhood is repeatedly selfless, giving of our time, our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our emotions, day after day after day… It is exhausting and arduous work, the results do not come quickly or easily.  It is humbling and we see our failures and our limitations multiple times each hour.  The furnace of motherhood refines the gold that God would see in us.  It strips us of our pride and urges us on to love, joy, peace, patience and kindness in the midst of difficulty.

As we work to bring home two very needy children, doubling the arrows in our quiver overnight, I am incredibly aware of the toll this journey is going to take on me.  I realize the non-existent “me time” I will have, the sleepless nights, the emotional upheaval, the lifelong commitment, the financial burden… I see all of this and yet the love I have for Christ and for my children surpasses all of these.

As I walked through the caves today and pondered the astounding love one must have to lock himself up in a dark, lonely cell for the rest of his life… it inspired me.  I am a terrible sinner, and much less righteous than these dear saints, but… I am a beloved and redeemed daughter of the King.  If they could do this out of love for their Redeemer, I can take on the ascetic life of a mother to four beautiful, young children who will all need my constant attention and care for the foreseeable future.

Will it be easy?  Of course not.  But the easy road is not one I want to take.  I want the ascetic road, the road that is foreign and strange.  The road that makes people wonder “Why would anyone chose such a thing?” So that in wondering they might be pointed to the love of Christ that drives us all to take up our cross, our ascetic calling, and to follow Him.

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