Redeeming Asceticism

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Earlier this month, surpassed Microsoft to become the most valuable company on earth. This should come as little surprise to Intersect readers, since we know that consumerism suffuses our culture. Accumulating the material goods we desire has become easier than ever. For most people, shiny items of an infinite variety can appear on our doorstep, just two days after a simple keystroke.

Amazon is helping to shape a generation of consumers for whom the splendors of Prime Day warrant an all-night vigil (literally, “a time of keeping awake”; we all know someone who stayed up late to get the best Prime Day deals). Ironically, the vigil is an ascetic practice employed by many Christians to prepare for sacred celebrations, such as the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. Although our culture prefers comfort to pain and convenience to patient endurance, we are still willing to sacrifice (sleep, or whatever) to attain these earthly pleasures.

Within this context, the term “ascetic practice” rings as a naughty word. Most Americans think first of the aberrant extremes of asceticism: people whipping themselves until they bleed or fasting to the point of emaciation. Although these extremes have become stereotypical, they do not define “asceticism.” Only a small fraction of ascetics have actually practiced such harmful excesses. But, as with any extremism group, the radicals always get the headlines.

American Christians need a renewed culture of ascetic practice. As the Church has realized for millennia, prioritizing the luxury of earthly pleasures leads to poor health of both body and soul. This doesn’t mean that food, rest or sexual intercourse are the enemies. But it does mean that aiming our desires at these earthly pleasures will divert our hearts from heaven. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither” (The Joyful Christian).

American Christians need a renewed culture of ascetic practice.

The paradox of this truth lies in the fact that only through a relative contempt for the material world, coupled with a priority for the spiritual, can the world’s true goodness be received. Indeed, the priority of heaven over earth and soul over body is the biblical vision of reality:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise for the present life and that which is to come. (1 Timothy 4:8)

Christ tells us to direct our desires to heaven not earth. St. Paul tells us that spiritual exercise is far superior to CrossFit. And the Apostle summarizes this truth in Colossians 3:2: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” Yet because we are prone to aim our desires earthward, we require spiritual training. In other words, like any successful athlete, we need asceticism (from the Greek: askesis, “training,” which is from askein “to exercise”).

The Church needs spiritual athletes. This is why Paul writes, “I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27). The word here for “discipline” carries violent overtones, literally meaning “to beat” or “to batter.” We’re called to show our body who’s boss. Because the spiritual is superior to the bodily, the former is meant to rule over the latter. Paul’s imagery is reminiscent of Jesus’ radical command to amputate our bodily organs in order to save our souls from hell (Matthew 5:30). Again, there’s a paradox here: only by a relative contempt for the body will both body and soul be saved, in the bodily resurrection of the dead.

How do we pursue this kind of spiritual training, this asceticism? The Church has understood the answer to be detachment from the world,[1] even though the world is good (relatively speaking). The purpose of fasting, for instance, is so that one can train his appetites by habitually telling them “No,” even in regard to lawful earthly goods, like food or conjugal relations. That way, when a sinful temptation stirs up the appetites, the body has been well-trained to obey its master, the sanctified, rational mind. C.S. Lewis is again helpful:

When you are training soldiers in maneuvers, you practice in blank ammunition because you would like them to have practices before meeting the real enemy. So we must practice in abstaining from pleasures which are not in themselves wicked. If you don’t abstain from pleasure, you won’t be good when the time comes along. It is purely a matter of practice (God in the Dock).

Lewis knew that athletes are much like soldiers (see 2 Timothy 2:4-5). As spiritual athletes, we should employ a habit of abstinence regarding earthly pleasures, even lawful ones, so that when unlawful pleasures tempt us, we resist more easily because of long-time practice.

The aim of any athletic contest is to win the prize of victory. St. Paul sees here an analogy to life in Christ:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).

In our consumeristic culture, this program of spiritual exercise is both unpopular and difficult. But to deny oneself has always been hard. In light of the fact that obesity in the United States has reached epidemic levels,[2] perhaps the earliest Christians can teach us about controlling our bodily impulses. They fasted every Wednesday and Friday (see The Didache 8), in remembrance of Judas’ betrayal of Christ and the Crucifixion. They also observed a forty-day fast prior to Easter (which the first Council of Nicaea described as a universal practice), based on Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness.

If these practices sound intimidating, take heart! Most of these fasts are only partial, requiring abstinence from meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Still, they are enough to interrupt your daily routine and set your mind on things above.

While the created order is a beautiful gift of God, focusing on its goodness fits happily within a culture that prizes comfort and convenience. Rather than risk treasuring earthly things (see Matthew 6:19), let us put on the practices of Christian asceticism. These habits of self-denial can strengthen us, by God’s grace, to aim our desires at unseen realities and reap the radiant joys of heaven, even now. This is the path of spiritual athleticism. So, let us enter the contest and redeem asceticism in the midst of culture that has ceased to run the race.

[1] The phrase “detachment from the world” is easily misunderstood. In Christian tradition, this term doesn’t mean a lack of care for the material creation, but rather the spiritual disposition which refuses to be attached to the fading existence of the present age (1 Corinthians 7:31; 1 John 2:17), in the sense of gripping it tightly and refusing to let go. This principle has wide application, including health of the body and material possessions. Here’s an example: if someone stole my car, would I love that person any less? If I refuse to love them, then I disobey Christ and break fellowship with him. However, the only reason I would struggle to love the thief is because I am “attached” to a worldly possession (my car). Thus, an attitude of detachment from the world is the means of remaining in the love of Christ. Traditional practices which train us for detachment, drawn from the Sermon on the Mount, include fasting, alms giving, and prayer vigils. The key principle here is summed up in Christ’s words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself.”

[2] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Bloomsbury, 2011), states, “According to the surgeon general, obesity today is officially an epidemic; it is arguably the most pressing public health problem we face, costing the health care system an estimated $90 billion a year. Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese” (pp. 101-102).

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Owen Kelly

Owen works as a faculty secretary at Southeastern Seminary where he is currently finishing a Th.M. in philosophy and patristics. He hopes to begin a Ph.D. degree soon, focusing on St. Maximus the Confessor.

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