A friend writes:
“God does not want us to completely ignore the simple pleasures of life that he has given to us. Isn’t too much asceticism a bad thing, even heretical?”
Maybe some modern associations with “asceticism” are distracting from the thing itself.
Originally, Greek ἄσκησις áskesis just meant athletic training. The exercise and self-discipline an athlete undertakes is naturally more extreme than what a casual amateur does, because the athlete is aiming for excellence. We see that metaphor repeatedly in the New Testament. Some familiar passages:
- Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race set before us.
- Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Significantly, that last comes from a context where Paul is talking about setting aside his rights and freedom in order to serve the Corinthian Church; a theme he picks up again here:
- All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.
- All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
We tend to think of “asceticism” as extreme, possibly masochistic, practices of austerity, withdrawal, or even self-harm. That’s hardly what Paul or Christ expect of Christians living in the world.
More in line with Christ’s language of discipleship is the familiar relationship a martial artist has with his sensei, an olympic swimmer with her coach, or a classical musician with a master. They undertake disciplines meant to enable them to reach their potential… in fact a disciple is nothing other than one who accepts discipline.
Rather than caricatures and unfamiliar extremes, we might begin with practical application of Christ’s commands, like “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.” If there’s any area of your life where you try to act with integrity and commitment, then you probably know how tempting it is to notice others who don’t have the same practice. In this way, instead of avoiding a harmful excess, we actually harm ourselves by becoming proud judges. If you’re fasting or refraining from some habit during Lent, then you probably fight this battle frequently. This is askesis.
“Be sober, be vigilant,” says Peter, and “be serious and watchful in your prayers.” And Paul adds, “Be watchful in all things… being watchful to this end with all perseverance.” In this they’re echoing Christ, who so consistently warned His disciples to be watchful – literally, to stay awake. We tend to function on automatic, thinking and doing what comes naturally, and so no wonder we fall consistently into the same patterns of sin, self-centeredness, and unexamined conscience.
If you can get monks to talk about their inner life (not an easy task) you won’t find them concentrating on what they’re not eating, who they’re not socializing with, or what discomfort they’ll be heroically enduring. They’re more concerned with owning their inner life. Real ascetics – now just as a thousand years ago – are people who live with intention. The verbal, fantasizing, logic-chopping part of their mind, along with the appetites of their soul and body, are not in control. They have thoughts; their thoughts do not have them.
Nobody just wakes up one day and suddenly is spiritually mature, governing all his impulses, with his heart all in order and his words only ministering healing. We form our inner man in large part by what we do outwardly. That’s why Christ said confidently that His disciples will fast; not “if” but “When you fast.“. And Paul commands Christians to “consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry… anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”
There’s certainly a place in the Christian’s life for self-discipline. Augustine of Canterbury, commenting on Hebrews 12, wrote “God has one Son without sin, but none without discipline.”