With Lent now upon us, it seemed a good time to try to formulate some thoughts I’d been developing about the idea of asceticism. “Asceticism” is not a word one hears very often, at least in popular culture, and when one does, it almost always has a negative connotation. Even within Christianity, the term is almost never used, especially outside of the Orthodox tradition. I think this is sad, because “asceticism” is a good word that helps to convey and focus our attention on a necessary aspect of a genuine Christian life. I want to focus here briefly on what I think are two general misconceptions about it which may help to remind us what we are about as we begin our own Lenten struggles. They are, it turns out, both variations of the gnostic rejection of physical reality as truly good.
The first is a misunderstanding about the nature of man. Man is made up of both a soul and a body, but there is a tendency to think that the Christian attitude is to identify one’s self with one’s soul. As a popular phrase puts it (sometimes falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis), “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” If this is true, then asceticism might be thought of as a way of trying to turn away from or escape from the body in order to get closer to our true selves. There is also the idea that we need somehow to get away from the body in order to know God, as if the body could be nothing but a hindrance.
But this is not the classical Christian understanding of the nature of man. Although man has body and man has soul, man is not either one of them, but is a composite, a union of both of them. Man is the creature which is neither purely immaterial, like God or the angels, nor purely material, like the rest of creation, but a union of both, a microcosm of the whole universe whose mission is in part to be a bridge between God and the rest of creation.
And this, in fact, is precisely why fasting and the other disciplines matter. Not because we are not our bodies, but because we are, at least in part. And therefore, what we do with our bodies matters. We cannot draw a clear line between the bodily and the spiritual; the truth of the Incarnation and the Eucharist and so much of our liturgical life prohibits us from doing so. We are not saved by escaping from bodily life, but by putting on and consuming and becoming the Body of Christ (whom, incidentally, he says we cannot even know unless we are willing to follow his commandments). So the body is of immense importance, and asceticism rightly conceived is not a rejection of the body, but what comes from taking it seriously.
This is the groundwork. Contrary to what might be thought, real asceticism is not a rejection of the body but a recognition of its power and importance in the spiritual life. Thus it is slightly ironic that the phrase used most often these days to refer to the classic disciplines of the Christian life is “spiritual disciplines”, as if the purpose of the disciplines is to “be spiritual.” The word asceticism basically means training. It is what athletes and soldiers do. And it carries with it the idea of some aim or goal. One doesn’t simply train, one trains for something.
And this is where the second misconception about asceticism comes in, which sees it primarily as negative, as about not doing certain things. Again, the idea here is one of rejection. One forgoes eating, so eating must be bad. One forgoes entertainment in order to pray, so entertainment must be bad. And so on. But again, this is not a Christian way of approaching the world.
On the Christian view, everything that exists, insofar as it exists, partakes in the being and the goodness and the beauty of God. The whole of creation is, as St John of Damascus says, an icon of the face of God, and all created things, seen aright, shine with his glory. But still, they are not God. And this is the primary role of ascetic denial: not to reject certain things as bad or worthless, but to help us put them in their proper place. We are creatures of love and desire, and the point of our disciplines is not to abolish this part of ourselves, but to make our loves rightly ordered.
There are, I think, two errors here that our Lenten practices help to correct. The most obvious is the error of idolatry – giving consideration and importance to things which are due to God alone. We worship our comfort, our tastes, our bellies, and so we fast. We worship our time, our independence, our leisure, and so we pray. We worship our security and our stuff, and so we tithe and give alms.
But there is a different, if related, error, that I think we are perhaps even more prone to, which is a kind of brutish insensitivity. Most of us are more likely simply not to pay attention to what or when or how often we eat than to show undue concern. We are not overly protective of our time, but value it too little, wasting it on distraction. And if we don’t give alms, it is not so much because we wish to hold it back from the poor, but because we avoid and ignore the very existence of the poor.
Asceticism is aimed to free us from both of these errors. It is not an arbitrary restriction of our freedom, but a first step in obtaining true freedom. Rather than being slaves to our desires or bored and passive participants in an un-Christian cultural liturgy, we can begin to train ourselves to see and to approach things as they really are and in relation to their divine Source. (And note that real freedom is not simply a given or a matter of belief – I am not free, for example, to play Beethoven’s piano sonatas simply because I believe I can. That is a freedom that can only be gotten through years of consistent training.)
In either case, the first step is to develop a bit of awareness and what the Fathers call nepsis, or watchfulness. This, as much as anything, is what the Lenten rules help us to do – to step back from the inertia of life and pay attention for a moment to the patterns of thought and action which show where our treasures lie. We must remember who we are. And whose we are. And how far we are from what we ought to be. As preparation for Lent every year we hear the story of the Prodigal Son, and the turning point of that story is when the prodigal suddenly “comes to himself”, sees with clear eyes for the first time what has become of him, and returns to his father. May we all likewise come to ourselves this Lenten season. Amen.