Gary Thomas, a Christian writer, penned a book entitled, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God, and for the next few columns, I am basing my meditations on the sacred pathways he identifies for becoming closer to God and finding an awareness of his presence in our daily lives.

Thomas suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all path to God, and that each of us relates to God and loves God in ways consistent with our unique temperaments. Thus, Thomas lays out nine sacred pathways and the characteristics of each, and the various pathways may overlap as we consider which of them best seem to fit us as individuals.

The fourth pathway is the ascetic who loves God in solitude and simplicity. The ascetic longs to be alone in prayer, without the trappings of religion or the noise of the outside world – without distractions. As Thomas says, “Frequently introspective, sometimes to a fault, they are uncomfortable in any environment that keeps them from ‘listening to the quiet.’”

Ascetics favor a simple life where they can delight in God rather than in the things they own or possess. They choose a monastic temperament of solitude, austerity, simplicity and deep commitment – living in awareness of God’s presence.

The Nazarites in the Bible were ascetics, set apart for a specific purpose, taking vows to abstain from alcohol, refrain from cutting their hair, and spend time in solitude and fasting. Jesus was also an example, as before He started His public ministry, He spent 40 days in solitude, fasting and prayer.

The solitude of asceticism can be both a physical detachment (seeking a private, quiet place for retreat) or an inner detachment (finding an internal quiet even in the midst of our busy lives). Because ascetics are distracted by their senses, they seek a way of austerity and simplicity, shutting the senses out of their environment for a time, finding a place to get away, to recharge, to listen for the call of God and worship Him. In this place of solitude and lack of sensory input, they find the space to follow this pathway to God.

The discipline of the ascetic allows for reserving a major portion of life to the pursuit of God. This may include the giving of income to serve others while living a simpler life oneself. It may also include a commitment to regular reading of Scripture and Christian literature, prayer and worship, thus setting aside time to come closer to God.

It certainly includes a commitment to humble obedience to God and to those God has set before us as leaders. And it includes working hard at what we do and what we create.

Developing the inner life is the goal of the ascetic, developing a sense of stillness and recognizing the benefits of silence. It is a contemplative life.

Apparently, I have a bit of the ascetic in me, because I truly enjoyed a silent retreat designed for meditation and contemplation at a convent. The setting was quiet, with a river running through the property, and a building that provided isolated spaces for solitude. Even meals in the company of others were silent. Initially, I confess that the silence was uncomfortable, and I floundered a bit, thinking a lot about what I “should” be doing with my time. But ultimately, the retreat was an opportunity to spend time alone with God, listening to Him through readings and Scripture and prayer, and a constant awareness that God was present beside and within me. I have seldom felt closer to God than I did through that experience.

An old hymn captures this feeling:

1 I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear falling on my ear

The Son of God discloses.

2 He speaks, and the sound of His voice,

Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,

And the melody that He gave to me

Within my heart is ringing.

Refrain

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own;

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

None other has ever known.

I’d encourage you to find a quiet place for a temporary retreat into solitude, silence and meeting with God. The life of the ascetic is surely a holy invitation to come closer to God and find peace. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29.

In my next column, I’ll introduce the path of the activist, who loves God through confrontation.

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