Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God.
Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives.
There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).
In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life.
THE ESSENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’.
Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this.
THE ASCETICISM OF DAILY LIVING
The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.
Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love.
Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life.
We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience.
More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated.
There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love.
Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily.
One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love.
What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that.
ASCETICISM VOLUNTARILY ASSUMED
Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives.
If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person.
If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases.
It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned.
Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person.
Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224
* Article by Rev. William Cosgrave, a priest of the diocese of Ferns, taught Moral Theology at the former Seminary St. Peter’s College, Summerhill, Co. Wexford.