Growing in the Belly of the Fish?: Eugene Peterson on the Need for Askesis [Under the Unpredictable Plant 2]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Here is Peterson on the necessity of askesis in the spiritual life and in particularly in the life of the pastor. Comparing it to Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish, Peterson helps us get a sense of what is necessary for a thriving spirituality in general and, perhaps, especially for pastors.

The belly of the fish was the unattractive opposite to everything Jonah had set out for. The belly of the fish was a dark, damp, and probably stinking cell. The belly of the fish is Jonah’s introduction to askesis.

Askesis is to spirituality what a training regimen is to an athlete. It is not the thing itself, but the means to maturity and excellence. Otherwise we are at the mercy of glands and weather. It is a spiritual equivalent to the old artistic idea that talent grows by its very confinement, that the genie’s strength comes from his confinement in the bottle. The creative artist and the praying pastor work common ground here. Without confinement, without the intensification resulting from compassion, there is no energy worth speaking of. This is not an option for either artist or pastor. This is not an item that may or may not be incorporated into the creative/spiritual life. This is required. The particular askesis that each person embraces varies, but without an askesis, a time and a place of confinement/concentration, there is no energy of spirit

Askesis is not a New Testament word, but the early church used it to make analogies with athletic training and spiritual development. This use has carried askesis into our language as an aspect of prayer and spirituality. But the disciplined practice behind the world permeates every human activity that deals with creativity and strives toward excellence.

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” No one becomes more spiritual by becoming less material. No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 74-76.

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