From Centuries of Holiness
The ascetical struggle has often been metaphorized as a difficult hike up a high mountain. The metaphor includes the strenuous effort required, the difficulties of climbing, and the occasional encounter of impediments on the road, especially a thorny path. Macarius the Egyptian, a fourth-century ascetic monk, writes in particular of the encounter with thorns on the way of progress, and his vivid descriptions give important instruction about the attitude and effort in the face of thorns and other impediments. This theory of thorns provides important information for the postmodern ascetic.
The thorns, theorizes Macarius, demand that the ascetic pay attention. Thorns cannot be ignored, because if one tries to do so, the thorns cause damage not only to the body by wounding it, but also to the clothing by tearing it. The damage, that is, occurs to both the outer and the inner person. Thus he says the thorns demand the ascetic’s attention. This is the first part.
The seeker must contemplate the thorns and take stock of the potential damage to body and clothing. Thoughts of continued progress must take second place to the immediate consideration of the thorns. The ascetic, in understanding the thorns as impediments, comes to understand precisely what stands in the way of progress, and how to traverse that section of the path in order to safely move beyond it.
The second aspect involves a plan to pass through the thorny patch without significant damage. The thorns cannot be ignored, so seekers must consider their damaging effect to be the basis of a plan to pass through them. The ascetic gathers clothing close to the body so that it will not be caught in the thicket; the ascetic walks steadily and firmly, not expanding the body, but trying as best as possible to contract it by placing one foot directly in front of another. The plan for passing through the thorns provides important information on the capacity of the person to adjust to difficulty, and it is vital to the ultimate success of the ascetic.
The third aspect is joy. Once the ascetic has maneuvered the thorny patch, and taken note of the damage to the body and the clothing, the ascetic experiences joy that progress has been made despite the impediments. The joy comes because the thorns did not succeed in stopping progress, nor did the thorns damage the seeker’s progress. Even the slowing down of the trip, the slow movement through the thorns, and the seeming impossibility of progress yields to joy; looking back, the ascetic sees that even though the distance covered was only a few feet, many miles were traversed in interior progress. The reflective joy acknowledges a maneuver well accomplished.
This little allegory of the thorny path encourages postmodern seekers, especially as the progress often seems so little and the impediments to divinization so great. Looking around at the state of the person, the various societies, governments, and the environment, the seeker could conclude that the effort is worthless, lacking in success, futile, and ultimately hopeless. That is the work of the thorns on the path. The ascetic must look closely at those impediments to progress toward divinization of self, society, and universe and begin to form a strategy for passing through them without ignoring the difficulties, but also without being overwhelmed by them. Studying the impediments and their effects provides important information to those who persist in the ascetic struggle. The analysis does not intend to undergird the level of difficulty, but to open a way to progress and advancement. Certainly, the ascetic will experience the pain of travel through the thorns – the pain to both the mind and the body, the psyche and the person. But such pain will not ultimately triumph, because of the attention given the thorns, the plan to traverse them, and the joy that follow the successful advancement. Such is the work of thorns and other impediments.