Asceticism today is considered by some as a social event in which many people behave in a manner which constitutes a notable interruption of their normal routines. A socially sanctioned role behaviour, which is able to act as an intermediate determinant of the state of one’s health which is on par with other lifestyles.

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 simply 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.

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 neighbour just as Jesus commanded. The love that Christians had for one another was a great witness to the world.

In ancient Greek, asceticism ἄσκησις (from Greek askeō: “to exercise,” or “to train”). In the classical period (510 BC to 323 BC), the idea of training, practical training, gymnastics, was central to the acquisition of virtues, rather than theoretical knowledge. To the point that the Ἀκαδημία ( Platonic Academy), founded by Plato in Athens in 387 BC, was located next to a gymnasium (γυμνάσιον) which was soon incorporated into the teaching curriculum.

For the Ancients, asceticism was a means to achieve the establishment of a full, complete and self-sufficient relationship between oneself. Asceticism does not involve elements of renunciation (even if there are elements of austerity), but rather of acquisition: it protects the inner person, equips the individual, prepares the individual for a future of unforeseen events that could (or will) occur. According to Foucault, asceticism represents the set of procedures capable of formation and restoration, where the need arises after events of illness or misfortune, equips with “real articulation” always keep at hand, which become the way of being of the subject. The Stoics emphasise the sage’s athletic training: “The art of living is more like fighting than dancing, because it is necessary to always be on guard, and well balanced, against the blows that can suddenly strike us” wrote Marcus Aurelius in his Thoughts. Asceticism represents an essential way of self-care, of the spiritual exercises which the Greek and Latin thinkers of the I—II century AD have dedicated so much of their efforts pointing out its importance.

Scriptural examples of asceticism can be found in the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus—both of whom fasted for 40 days. Jesus instructed his disciples to fast (Matthew 6:16) and sell their possessions (Matthew 19:21), Saint Paul was celibate, and the primitive Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 4:32) had a tradition of no personal ownership, as well as periods of prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2). Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly ascetic religious environment. Through their commentaries, they created a version of Christian asceticism.

The asceticism of practitioners like Jerome was hardly original, and a desert ascetic like Saint Antony the Great (251-356 C.E.) was in the tradition of ascetics in noted communities and sects of the previous centuries. Emphasis on an ascetic religious life is evident in both early Christian writings (Philokalia) and the Eastern Christian practice of hesychasm. Other well known Christian ascetics include Simeon Stylites, Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Claire of Assisi and numerous others. Indeed, Christian ascetics remain numerous in the modern world in both Catholic and Orthodox monasteries which allow for varying degrees of ascetic lifestyles.

Sexual abstinence was merely one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality, and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than sex, and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers and mothers has more than 20 chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia (“sexual lust”).

In the Christian Middle Ages, asceticism acquired a meaning of spiritual ascent and upward tension: a tightrope between self and the perfection of God continues to require tests of physical resistance from its practitioners: from the fasting undertaken by Saint Antony of the Desert, to the balancing acrobatics of Saint Simeon Stylites who lived on a small platform raised on a column (stylite) for nearly forty years not far from the Syrian city of Aleppo .

Ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon with remains of his column (centre, now topped with a boulder)

Since the nineteenth century we have witnessed the beginning of a radical transformation of the phenomenon of asceticism, which today calls for a new conceptualisation and challenges public health: the de-spiritualisation of ascetical practices, reuniting with somatism (sport, fitness, dieting), the explosion of informal mysticism and an unprecedented spread of involuntary or unconscious practices (transcendental meditation, stays in monasteries, religious walks, pilgrimages and  mountaineering).

It is up to Nietzsche and Kafka to have aroused attention of the intuition that existence as such is an acrobatic performance and “one of the most widespread and lasting facts that exist”: to the community of acrobats and tightrope walkers that populate the society today. It is no coincidence that the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra opens with the episode of the tightrope walker who falling from the rope crashes to the ground.

Why the spread of practices based on exercise, which can be defined as ascetic or “anthropotechnical” practices (techniques of existence and practices for oneself), in contemporary society? Is it perhaps the need for a rhythmic life, cantered on exercise and rules, which gives shape to the deep biological impulse of discipline, made more urgent by the crisis of certainties and ideological references that crosses today’s world? It is as if the crisis of meta-narratives, the great “staging” of Modernity of which postmodern philosophers speak, had left the field to minimal narratives, to repetitive rules around which to anchor the search for meaning .

What impact do these more or less conscious forms of asceticism have on the health of those who practice them and more generally what relevance do they have for public health? This is a vast horizon of research that still finds many empty pages: exploring the internet and the databases of biomedical literature one can understand that the combination of asceticism and health has so far aroused little interest.

Only recently has particular emphasis been placed on the beneficial effects of physical exercise and sport as a lifestyle, almost a moral attitude, promoting good health. The World Health Organisation published in 2010 a document of “Global recommendations on physical activity for health” based on available evidence and aimed at promoting physical activity as a mass dimension. And the US federal government has issued guidelines on the subject for the entire American population in which for the first time the concept of exercise is explicitly linked to that of happiness: 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans “Be Active, Healthy, and Happy!” Exercise, training as an essential practice for a healthy and peaceful life. Meanwhile, sports programs for mental health and for people with intellectual disabilities are also proliferating.

Oscar Pistorius

In the field of disabilities, in fact, exercise and training have long been considered as essential aids in rehabilitation, to reduce the impact of handicap on function; but today the dimension of the moral and “acrobatic” redemption with respect to the impairment is underlined, starting from the example of the Prussian armless violinist Carl Herman Unthan  (5 April 1848 – †1929) and that of the South African athlete Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius who At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, was the first double-leg amputee participant with mechanical prostheses on the lower limbs.

In addition to sports exercise and the different forms of attention to the body, the relevance for the health of unconscious ascetic practices has not yet been evaluated, as asceticism while deserving attention for the potential impact on the health of individuals and communities is not still conceptualised in all its multiple expressions. Yet asceticism today is configured as a mass phenomenon, probably able to play a role as an intermediate determinant of the state of health like other lifestyles. 

It should be remembered in this regard how the spiritual exercises and the practices of wisdom are characterised not only by their upright tension in search of a relocation of oneself within the world and nature, as Seneca warned in Epistle LXVI to Lucilius (Moral letters to Lucilius № 66), but also for reflections on the horizontal dimension of the polis, social practices and the human community. The capacity for relationships and reciprocity are expressed within shared norms and interconnectivity (being connected to others) already counted among the factors which are capable of positively influencing a person’s health.

  1. Asceticism helps to combats habitual sin. If you find that you are struggling to restrain your yearning for something you are prone to abuse (such as eating, drinking, sexual relations, opulence, and so forth), practicing self-denial helps you to build your spiritual strength to overcome it.
  2. Asceticism creates the virtue of temperance. Temperance is a virtue which balancesour yearnings for material goods. When our yearnings are out of control (a condition of Original Sin called “concupiscence” strong sexual desire and lust), we need to counterbalance it with self-denial.
  3. Asceticism safeguards you against the excesses of today’s societal overindulgence. Just as the culture of the early Christians, our modern culture idolises entertainment, luxury, and physical pleasures. Whilst Christians may give lip-service (allegiances expressed in words but not backed by deeds) to resisting temptations, the truth is that we have been immersed into an overindulgent culture and it may prove difficult not to be reshaped by it. Asceticism allows us to aim our hearts on the greater goods and to resist heedlessness of heart and opens our hearts to be changed through grace.
  4. Asceticism converts our hearts and shields it from selfishness. We live in automated comfort, in every aspect of our lives. We’ve become used to having our entertainment available at a touch of a button. Everything in our lives is developed around convenience, entertainment, and comfort. Even the strongest hearts among us can become thoughtless when we become used to the every day comforts. Self-sacrifice prevents our modern lifestyle from pervading too profoundly into our hearts. This is why Saint Francis made it compulsory for his brothers to serve the poor by living among the poor and why many religious orders make a vow of poverty. Monastic orders from the middle ages to the eighteenth century tended to live rather luxuriously, this resulted in the orders and its members becoming conceited and self-serving which resulted in their losing the charism of their founders and therefore lost sight of their vocation. The same principle applies to lay people living in the world.
  5. Asceticism is an act of love made by an individual. Just as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we are able to make a self-sacrifice as a demonstration that we have devoted and entrusted our lives to Jesus completely. Asceticism exercises the virtue of charity. It is an act of love for God on our part, and we should also offer our voluntary suffering for the salvation of others, making it an act of Christ-like love toward our neighbours.