Living in an age of unprecedented material prosperity and comfort, the practice of asceticism is a relic of ages past. The word itself invokes images of emaciated monks wearing hair shirts and living in the desert. Asceticism is still a foundational element in a healthy Christian life however and something that is foundational to the Christian life. With this in mind, it is instructive to examine this practice with twenty-first century eyes.
What Is Asceticism?
Crippled in practice by misconceptions, a definition of asceticism is in order. It is derived from the Greek word askētikós which means subject to rigorous exercise and hard work in the pursuit of virtue. Simply put, asceticism is the strenuous effort one makes to overcome the deep division within his nature. Asceticism is never done for its own sake, but always as a means to an end. Forget this and it becomes more an exercise of ego than a Christian practice. Christian asceticism is a means to greater freedom. It is always done so as to live with the freedom of the children of God. The more control we have over ourselves, the more grace is able to penetrate and transform us. Grace perfects nature.
Never forgetting that we are earthen vessels, there is a vast difference between what we might call a heathen asceticism and Christian asceticism. The heathen attempts to simply beautify the body the body while Christians attempt to bring it under control and train it for the glory of Heaven. The heathen attempts to avoid death, the Christian lives looking forward to the Resurrection of the Body.
Asceticism is fitness training for the glory of heaven. This training is approached from two angles.
The first is the classic approach in which we refuse to the body all that can weaken our soul’s union with Our Lord. We know that, as fallen men and women, we are uncomfortable in our own skin. Our bodies seem to have a mind of their own and so we must consciously forgo things that are good for us. This training is not so much meant to bully the body but to prepare it to serve the higher goods of the soul. In our resurrected state, the body will be under the command of the higher faculties of intellect and will—asceticism of this sort looks forward to that day. We do what we can and wait for grace to do the rest.
The New Asceticism
On his death bed, St. Francis of Assisi had one regret—that he had been more gentle with Brother Ass, the moniker he gave to his body. It is in this spirit that we view the second approach of actually taking care of our bodies. A “new” asceticism might consist in doing all of those things and only those things that are necessary for our union with Our Lord. In the old asceticism, the practice often overshadowed the purpose. Subduing the body is not the end. We subdue the body so that we may live fully in the freedom of the children of God.
Why this is “new” is because it reflects the times we live in. Some of the poorest among us are surrounded by material comforts that only nobility would have enjoyed in the past. With access to so many comforts, abstinence remains an option, but the harder path (i.e the path of virtue) is to practice moderation. It allows us to use the material gifts God has provided with a greater freedom—the freedom that only comes when we use things according to the use that God intended.
In a vicious man, the body is a danger to his spiritual health, but in the hands of a virtuous man, a healthy body becomes a great spiritual weapon. Rather than dragging themselves around by severe fasts, they abound with energy for winning souls to the Kingdom of God. The beauty of their soul is matched with a certain beauty of body. Holiness has a beauty all its own, a beauty that ought to radiate to the body even if it will never be matched in this world.
I have seen numerous articles floating about with regards to New Year’s Resolutions for Christians. Almost all of them poo-poo “bodily” resolutions like getting back in shape because they suffer from a dualistic view of man that somehow puts the body and the soul at enmity with each other. We may not be trousered apes, but we also are not angels. A Christian knows that she is both and soul—she does not have a body and soul, but instead is a body and soul. Those things that are truly good for the body redound to the soul and vice versa. In other words, things that are good are good for the whole person. As form of the body, the soul has a certain precedence, but nevertheless exercising the body is something that holy people do.
I would like to suggest that many Christians fail in their New Year’s resolutions precisely because they fail to see the need to train the whole person. They may make resolutions to pray more, read Scripture more, etc, but then lack the bodily discipline to get out of bed to do these things. They may be too tired because of poor health. On the other hand they may promise to work out X number of days, but fail because they do not have the necessary virtue to persevere. They fail to grasp that for the Christian, working out can be a spiritual practice (c.f. ), or more accurately a practice done by a perfectly integrated Christian.
Asceticism in Practice
What would this new form of asceticism look like? For starters we should have some regular form of moderate to intense exercise—always with its proper end in mind so as to keep us moderated. From an ex-competitive bodybuilder I can tell you that physical exercise can become addictive especially as you begin to see positive body changes and so we must always remember why we are doing it.
There are other, more common sense things we can do as well—especially when it comes to food. In God’s goodness, eating, because it is necessary for life, brings with it some pleasure. But pleasure is not its purpose. Its purpose is to produce health and strength. It is in this spirit that we should always approach food and avoid snacking between meals and overeating.
This approach also helps us to rediscover the difference between merely eating and a meal. A meal is meant to be a sign of a shared life together as they share something that cannot be lived without. There may be a lot of eating, but very few meals. In writing about gluttony, St. Gregory the Great describes the dangers of falling into the deadly sin of gluttony not only by eating too much, but also too expensively, too daintily prepared, too quickly and too often. When our meals are more focused on who we are with and then the food, we are protected against this vice that acts as a gateway to the more serious sins of the spirit.
One other way the new asceticism is lived out is regarding getting enough sleep. Often this simply means avoiding mind-numbing activities that typically keep us from falling asleep at a good time. But it can also be an act of humility recognizing our own limitation and the number of things we can reasonably get done on a given day. Most people find that when they set a hard and fast bed time, they not only feel better but waste less time during the day. This is not to rule out vigils which are an important ascetical practice, but to say that these are an exception to what is otherwise an ordering of our lives that is patterned after God’s design.
Before closing, a point of clarification regarding the two approaches. They are equally applicable to all stages of our Christian life. It is not as if you graduate from the first approach and adopt the second. We will never fully conquer the effects of original sin and so we will need to first approach. Likewise, we are redeemed and ever-growing in our freedom and so the second approach will also be necessary.
St. Paul tells Timothy that “while bodily training is of some value, Godliness is of value in every way” (1Tim 4:8). Christians, especially in our day, tend to ignore the first part and wonder why they are not as Godly as they could be. Embracing asceticism once again, will go a long way in accomplishing this.