Urban Asceticism and Spiritual Combat in the 21st Century – Part 1

What is spiritual combat?  What is urban asceticism?  I think more and more people – while maybe completely unaware, are realizing that the modern advances in society do not at all reflect the natural progression of the human spirit and soul, that is, while there may be progress in the social realm of life, there is in fact no progress spiritually.  Some are beginning to understand that social progress does not equate with spiritual progress, that the inner soul is seeking wisdom, order, and definition, while the world around is becoming more and more defined, and the soul more distant from it.

What is spiritual combat? This term can be used in a variety of ways, however I find it most useful to interpret “spiritual combat” as that between Man and Demons.  It is here where we have to understand the term “demon.”  I will not go into the etymology of “demon,” but we must understand “demons” not merely as actual physical beings.   In ancient times when someone refered to demons it was not simply in terms of a creature acting on behalf of Satan.  Demons were things that pushed the soul against good, that made the soul feel unpleasent.   Often one knew when one was in the presence of demons.   Therefore battling against demons meant also battling against actual spiritual states of existence, i.e depression, doubt, ignorance, anger, greed, hatred, temptation, etc.   These soul, the priest, the monk, the man or woman, goes into a spiritual combat against these demons daily, and they are  hard battle to win.

Often men go into spiritual combat without preparation, and they fail, and allow the demons to take over them.  In the modern world it is even harder for the soul to battle combat.   But perhaps it has always been so, and perhaps this is why the monasteries exist – because in order to fully battle one must not be bogged down by the daily mess of city life, of the pestering contacts of people – but one must practice humility and penance in the place where one can focus purely on such things – and the quite nature of a monastery, the solemn landscape of the desert, or the tender beauty of a forest, these places are ideal for spiritual battle.

But it is also the place where often the worst demons come out.  While we live in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where the mind is constantly distracted from the on-goings of the soul, we seem to hide our demons pretty well, we keep them fed, we keep them quite by pleasing them softly daily with the temptations that they seek from us – but once we stop feeding them, once we begin to ask them to leave, they begin to do battle.

St. Antony’s torment in the desert is known to all students of monasticism.  We know that it was there, in the desert, faced with all the creatures of torment that he battled.   Perhaps Bosch’s and Dali’s painting (above) paint a more vivid picture for the reader.

But not listening to the soul and feeding your demons daily will not solve anything, in fact it will only decay the soul.  Perhaps it is for these reasons why big cities have always had the curse of being labeled as the centers of evil.  Because the soul is not fed properly, in fact it is being starved – by the brutality and carelessness around it.    I live in New York City, and it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world – but there is also so much brutality to it.   I see this brutality everywhere I go – the demons of hatred and lust, the demons of arrogance and narcissism.

On a sidewalk in SoHo you can see a woman walking out of a boutique where she has just purchased a dress for $2,000 and only a few feet from her, a helpless homeless person with no life-insurance is suffering.   She walks past this suffering human being without notice, and she has is perhaps suffering the most within, and not knowing it at the same time.

Often we are confronted by people we work with who are above us in rank who misuse their power, who do not respect themselves or their employees and/or constituents, the demon of power is within them, and they have lost their reason against it.  Often we are confronted with doing work we do not want, with the unpleasantness of crowds we do not feel part of – and sometimes when we are confronted with such things we must remember not to fall to the demons of anger and destruction, for they shall sow their seeds deep within us and bare the most disgusting fruit.

In this city such criminals as Bernard Madoff and Gerald Fuld have completely sold their souls to the demons of shame and greed.  They are tormented souls, and so many more are tormenting because of them.   I am sure that all of those who have lost their money are now succumbing to the forces of anger, regret, doubt, depression.  But they should not, because it is only a greater opportunity to reach for the higher station in life – through battling, through humility and poverty finding joy and peace.

In the next article I will discuss aspects of urban asceticism based on my research and how some people chose to live a life of silence and contemplation within urban and other paradoxical environments.


~ by alexmalina on February 13, 2009.

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