“Asceticism? Isn’t that like wearing hair shirts and whipping and punishing yourself? Does the Church still teach that?”
Questions like this are common when you start using traditional terms for things like the Lenten sacrifice. I love questions like this because they offer a beautiful opportunity to help people rediscover the deeper meaning of ancient spiritual practices. So even though Lent is over, let’s explore the role that asceticism has plaid in our faith from the very beginning of Christianity, and the role it can play in your own spirituality now.
What is Asceticism?
Simply put, asceticism means self-sacrifice. It means denying yourself physical pleasures and conveniences even when you don’t need to.
Christians do not practice asceticism because we see physical goods as evil. On the contrary, asceticism guards against valuing the goods of Creation so much that we disdain the Creator. Like all spiritual practices, asceticism should be motivated by love.
Love One Another As I Have Loved You
At the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:34-35). An astute reader may ask, “Wait a minute – how is this a new command? Didn’t Jesus already teach us to love? What about the two Great Commandments? What about the story of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule? How is this a new commandment?
To answer that question, we need to recognize how the Son of God really loved us. From the Incarnation to His public ministry to the Holy Eucharist, to the Crucifixion, Jesus loved by giving His entire self to us. That’s His new Commandment. This kind of love is realistically impossible for mere mortals. So Jesus is calling on us to trust in His grace so that when we pour ourselves out in love for others He can continue to give us life.
The Early Church Follows the Lord’s Command
For the first 300 years of the Church’s existence, Christians were called to follow Jesus’ new commandment in a radical way. Many Christians were called to give the ultimate gift of love through martyrdom. Even those Christians who didn’t pay the ultimate price with their life practiced their faith every day knowing that they could be called to martyrdom at any time. In other words, to be a Christian in the first few centuries of the Church meant being willing to sacrifice everything out of love for Jesus. Of course, this love also spilled out into love of neighbor just as Jesus commanded. The love that Christians had for one another was a great witness to the world.
Peace in the Church and the Birth of Asceticism
In 313 AD, emperors Constantine and Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, agreeing together to stop the persecution of Christians. Followers of Christ were no longer called to put their life on the line in order to worship Jesus. This led some Christians to become lax in their faith. Many of them gave into the paganism of the culture. Others embraced the sinful lifestyle of the cultures they lived in. Bishops were forced for the first time to exhort Christians to greater commitment and fervency.
Other Christians responded to the end of persecution in the opposite way. They left the pagan culture to live in isolation in the desert. These men and women decided that if they weren’t called to give their lives for Jesus through martyrdom, they would give up their lives for Him in prayer. Instead of red martyrdom, they would offer themselves as a living sacrifice in white martyrdom. These lovers of Jesus became known as the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers. Eventually, Saint Basil the Great and other leaders stepped in to offer structure and balance to this movement, forming what we know today as the monastic orders (the religious life).
Asceticism played an important role in both of these post-persecution scenarios. In the first case, bishops encouraged Catholics to practice asceticism in order to combat the sinful extravagancies of the culture and the lure of sinful desires. In the second case, asceticism was the sacrifice offered out of love to Jesus.
Asceticism in Modern Spirituality
While it’s true that asceticism – like many aspects of faith and human life – was abused at times in Church history, the legacy of asceticism is that of making saints. And it still has that power today in your own spiritual life. Why should you practice asceticism? Here are some powerful reasons.
1. Asceticism combats habitual sin. If you struggle to control your desire for something you tend to abuse (food, drink, sex, comfort, etc), practicing self-denial is like building your spiritual muscles against it.
2. Asceticism builds the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the virtue that balancesour desires for physical goods. When our desires are out of balance (a condition of Original Sin called “concupiscence”), we need to reset the balance with self-denial.
3. Asceticism protects you against the excesses of the culture. Like the culture the early Christians lived in, our modern culture has deified entertainment, luxury, and physical pleasure. While Christians can give lip service to resisting these temptations, the truth is that we’re immersed in this culture and it’s difficult not to be transformed by it. Asceticism helps us to set our hearts on the greater goods and to resist laxity of heart and open our hearts to be transformed by grace.
4. Asceticism moves our hearts away from selfishness. We live in air-conditioned comfort, even in our cars. We get used to having entertainment literally at our fingertips. Everything in our lives is built around convenience, entertainment, and comfort. Even the largest hearts among us can become lax when we get used to being comfortable all the time. Self-sacrifice prevents our modern lifestyle from sinking too deeply into our hearts. This was the reason Saint Francis required his brothers to serve the poor by living among the poor and why Dominicans also took a vow of poverty. Monastic orders at the time lived luxuriously and religious men and women were losing the true sense of their vocation. The same principle applies to lay people living in the world.
5. Asceticism can be an act of love. Like the first Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, we can offer our self-sacrifice as a token of dedicating our complete lives to Jesus. Asceticism can exercise the theological virtue of charity. It can be an act of love for God, and we can also offer our voluntary suffering for the salvation of souls, making it an act of Christ-like love for our neighbor.
Asceticism plays the same role for us today that it did for the early Christians after the Edict of Milan. It shapes our hearts away from concupiscence (sinful desire) towards God and selflessness. It exercises the selfless love of charity. Of course, we want to avoid the excesses and abuses that have given asceticism a bad name (think of Hollywood’s portrayal of the scrupulous Catholic whipping himself bloody with a Cat-O-Nine-Tails in front of a crucifix all night). But properly used, asceticism is an invaluable tool in our spiritual toolbox.
You can get in touch with Jeff Arrowood at firstname.lastname@example.org.