For all their spiritual rigour the teachers of the ancient Christian desert tradition, sought to keep their disciplines in perspective. They understood that asceticism is intended to support and never displace the practice of love.
Abba Cassian said: “We came from Palestine to Egypt, and visited one of the fathers. After he had offered us hospitality, we asked him: ‘Why, when you receive guests, do you not keep the fast? In Palestine they keep it.’
The father answered us: ‘I can always fast. But I cannot keep you here for ever. Fasting is useful and necessary, but we are free to choose to fast or not fast. God’s law, on the other hand, demands from us that we always practice perfect love.
When I receive you my visitor, I receive Christ: and so I must do all I can to show you the love that God commands. After I have bidden you farewell, I can return and again take up my rule of fasting.
The sons of the bridegroom cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them: when he is taken from them, then they can fast.’” (WA, 144:2)
Correct spiritual practice always aims to free the practitioner to act with authentic love.
The revered father said, ‘There are monks who do many good works, and the evil one sends them scruples about quite little things, to cause them to lose the fruit of the good they have done.
When I happened to be living in Oxyrhynchus near a priest who gave alms to many, a widow came to ask him for some wheat. The priest said to her, “Bring me a sack and I will measure some out for you.”
The woman brought the priest a sack. He estimated the size of the sack and said to the woman, “It is a big sack.”
The widow was filled with shame.
I asked the priest, “Abba, have you sold the wheat?”
He said, “No, I gave it to the widow in charity.”
Then I asked the priest, “If you truly gave the wheat to the widow as an act of love, why did you quibble about the size of her sack and fill her with shame?”’ (WDF, 42:150)
Thomas Merton, though of course not an ancient desert mystic, understood the true purpose of ascetic practice:
It is so easy to satisfy oneself with external conformity to precepts instead of living the full and integral life of charity which religious rules are intended to promote. (Disputed Questions. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic, Publishers, 1953, 117)