As a young Christian, it seemed strange to me that the life goals I was supposed to have did not seem very different from everyone else’s. Do well in school, get a good job, make money, get married, raise a family.
Not that these are bad things- it just seemed that Christianity was supposed to be something transformative, that pursuing God was supposed to supersede other life priorities.
Furthermore, especially as a wealthy Christian in a country with stark poverty, it seemed that following Christ should have meant doing something for the suffering poor in Malaysia. It seemed to me that as Christ sacrificed himself out of love for us, following Christ had to mean making painful sacrifices for others’ sake. And growing up it just felt that I had very little guidance and encouragement as to how to do that, from church or from anywhere else.
Much later I was introduced to the “New Friars” movement (the term comes from Scott Bessenecker’s excellent book, as a reference to the medieval Franciscan friars). These were small groups of mostly protestant Christians who committed to live long-term in poor communities, in extreme simplicity in order to better serve their neighbours there. I spent more than a year considering whether to commit to living in a Jakarta slum for at least three years with Servants Asia.
I ultimately decided not to go through with it. Nevertheless, it was tremendously encouraging seeing people striving to such extremes to be in community and to love their neighbors in such dire circumstances. It was as if I was seeing the Jesus in the gospels come to life in these men and women. However, they were such outliers that it seemed as if they were so far removed from my religious experience. I could give money to support their work, but there was no spiritual nudging for me to live more like they lived.
When I discovered Orthodox Christianity, I was pleasantly surprised at how important asceticism was in church practice. For example, the church calendar reinforces the idea that the Christian life involves seasons of sacrifice and simplicity. In the regular fasting periods (lent is the most important one, but almost half of the calendar is a fasting day of some sort) all Orthodox Christians are meant to give up meat and dairy, eat and live simply, and give more to charity. All this helps to emphasize that all of us are to strive in some small way to live out this ascetic ideal, to be “in the world but not of the world”.
Another huge blessing is the presence and participation of monks and nuns in the church life. The head priest at our local church in Kuala Lumpur is a also a monk, and we also have two nuns that run the church and the services. It it a tremendous encouragement to have people around who have taken vows of poverty and chastity, who have committed to a way of life that is so far removed from the worldly “rat race”. They are important role models, an affirmation that it is not completely crazy to renounce everything the world considers important to pursue God to the fullest.