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The Ascetic Habits of Saint Paisios

Saint Paisios, also known as Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, died in 1994 and was canonized (recognized as a saint) in 2015. That makes him not only one of the most recent figures to be granted sainthood by the Orthodox Christian Church, but also one of the fastest to receive sainthood after death.

So, what made Paisios a saint? And is there anything we can learn from his life that we can apply to our own?

Elder Paisios lived his life as a monk, also known as an ascetic or hesychast. In fact, even as a child, he’s said to have spent much of his free time alone in the woods, praying constantly. After a short stint as a carpenter and then as a radio operator in the Greek army during WW2, he traveled to Mount Athos, where he officially began his monastic journey.

Mount Athos, or the “Holy Mountain”, is one of the most significant Christian religious sites in the world, attracting thousands of pilgrims per year to visit its large and active monastic community.

How Paisios Cultivated a Virtuous Life Through Habits

All of the monks on Mount Athos live a very ascetic lifestyle, whether in one of the large monasteries or a small, isolated hermitage.

Their time is spent on a combination of religious services, prayer, study, and manual labor, which includes things like tending to their gardens or crafting icons and prayer ropes. They follow a very simple and sparse diet, consisting mostly of bread and vegetables, and they fast regularly.

But even among disciplined ascetics, Saint Paisios’ lifestyle was particularly strict and austere. This created within him a profound spirituality that, combined with his remarkable kindness and humility, attracted countless pilgrims from throughout the world who sought the wisdom of his words and the healing power of his prayers.

Of course, the monastic life is not for everyone.

“Everyone must act according to his spiritual state. One must not take up ascetic labors that he is not ready for yet.”

But by applying more moderate versions of some of the ascetic habits to our own life, we can make progress in both our secular and spiritual goals.

How to Adopt Ascetic Habits Like Saint Paisios

There are three constants of the monastic practice: fasting, study, and prayer.

And if you’re looking to build greater discipline, peace of mind, and wisdom, you might want to consider incorporating these practices into your own life.

Here’s how to turn the ascetic struggle of monks into daily habits for a layman.

Discipline Mind, Body, and Spirit Through Fasting

While all Orthodox Christians are expected to fast on certain days throughout the week or year, it’s part of daily life for monks. They will eat something on most days, but it’s usually very simple foods, as we mentioned above.

There are a variety of reasons for this, which include building discipline and imitating the life of Jesus.

As Saint John Chrysostom said, “Fasting is the support of our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation!”

But again, most of us aren’t trying to become monks. And the normal fasting observed for holidays like Lent isn’t maintainable throughout the year.

So, how do we make fasting a daily habit, without taking it to the extreme of the ascetics?

Intermittent fasting is a good bet. With intermittent fasting, you only eat during a limited “feeding window”. The most common setup is a 16/8 split, where you have a 8-hour period where you can eat and a 16-hour period where you fast.

For instance, you might have your first meal at 2pm and your last snack at 10pm. Of course, you’re not limited to just one meal and a snack. Many people still eat around the same amount of food on intermittent fasting, it’s just limited to a shorter time frame.

Then, from 10pm that night until 2pm the next day, you won’t consume any calories at all.

Not only does this help you incorporate some of the discipline of fasting into your daily life, it has plenty of other benefits, including increased fat loss, reduced inflammation, and even improved cognitive function.

Sharpen Your Mind Through Study

Saint Paisios stressed the importance of study and its ability to strengthen both our mind and our soul.

Study is like a gift which God gives us to direct us to greater spirituality. With study the soul is warmed.”

In the case of Paisios and other monastics, this study typically revolves around the Bible and patristics or hagiography, which is the study of the writings and lives of the saints. And while this can certainly be beneficial in our own lives, we can also incorporate some secular topics in our own curriculum.

So, make sure to study at least 30 minutes per day. But don’t misinterpret this as “read”.

Elder Paisios was very adamant that not only should the material we read be demanding and enriching, but that we should read it actively and apply the knowledge that we gain. It’s also a good idea to take notes.

“[D]on’t be comforted by the thought that you read a lot. Instead, turn your attention to applying what you have read.”

Make Regular Prayer a Part of Your Life

While fasting and study are definitely key parts of the ascetic’s life, it is prayer that forms the foundation.

“A little study and a lot of prayer.  We must participate in prayer and worship with our whole heart”.

 The most common form of prayer practiced on Mount Athos is the Jesus Prayer, which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The monks often pray this way for hours each day.

But again, you don’t have to go to quite those lengths. However, prayer can be a helpful aid to both your spirituality and your mind. Not only does prayer promote hesychasm, or stillness, it’s been shown to reduce anxiety and create other positive neurological benefits.

Try incorporating 5-minute prayer sessions into your daily routine, preferably right before bed or right after waking up.

Add these daily habits to your list:

  1. Practice intermittent fasting – limit your meals to a set feeding window and reap the physical and cognitive benefits
  2. Study for at least 30 minutes – use active reading and apply what you learn to enrich your mind, spirit, and life
  3. Pray for at least 5 minutes – find spiritual peace and mental stillness through daily prayer

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