What happed to asceticism?

Wikipedia points to the problem: “Many religious traditions, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism advocate restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind.”According to the Wikipedia, Christianity has nothing to do with it!

Why has Christian asceticism somewhat disappeared ? In the past ascetic practices were related to devotions, but these have faded away. In centuries past, Communion was rare and came with requirements: the Eucharistic fast (no food from the night before) and usually confession. The devotion to the Sacred Heart institutionalized confession and communion once a month for nine months. Today the Eucharistic fast of one hour (canon 919) and the routine Communion at every Mass make these past practices obsolete.

According to Wikipedia, “These religions teach a deeper level of satisfaction ... in the pursuit of acquiring deep inner peace.”  The world “asceticism” comes from the Greek áskesis which means exercise or training. - The absence of spiritual exercises leads to spiritual obesity, which is an unhealthy condition for spiritual warfare and spiritual discernment.

How can we regain this tradition? Not by going back to the Middle Ages but looking forward. Sin can be seen as addiction (McCormick, 1989) but it is more than substance abuse (food, caffeine, drugs) and process addiction (consumerism, work, texting); it is addiction to  the values of the media and celebrity culture which prevails even in the church.

Spiritual discernment is required to disentangle oneself from the snares of the media culture. Silent time and meditation are basic ascetic tools. Control of one’s environment through intake control of food, images and sounds is another. Physical exercise to be in athletic shape for spiritual warfare is another. A program of spiritual readings is another.


Historical insights

I was surprised by the information that Christianity is viewed in some places as having dismissed asceticism, having more or less jettisoned the idea of asceticism as one path in experiencing the reality of God.
There has been a tendency in Christianity to emphasize obedience in our relation to God. This legal framework which can become quite legalistic may lead to self-justification, “I work hard, pay my taxes, go to church, and don’t beat my spouse.” Add to this the Christian notion, particularly fierce in Reformed traditions, that we’re so inherently flawed that we can’t do anything to massage our relationship to God. “What would be the point of self-deprivation?” 

In this perspective, silent time and meditation as basic ascetic tools  are simply not inherently linked to one’s relationship to God (as in Hinduism) or to spiritual enlightenment (as in Buddhism). There might be a pragmatic aspect to asceticism in Christianity; namely, what we don’t consume, others can. Response to God’s love can include doing with less, so others can do with more. My mother practiced that kind of asceticism, although she would never have thought of it as a spiritual practice or asceticism.
Anton Jacobs, antonkjacobs@earthlink.net
Kansas City Art Institute

  Moderation in self-indulgence

Asceticism is not a cause, but rather an effect. In following Christ, one becomes aware that certain actions are inappropriate, unloving, self-pampering. So one “gives up” judging others, reproaching others for presumed slights, vaunting one’s gifts, and other spiritual asceticisms. In like manner, one realizes that food is a means to health, fellowship, and the like, and not an end in itself and that care of one’s God-given body requires a degree of abstemiousness, especially in this obese society. Drink is also “good for the stomach, Timothy” but not in excess.  So in dress, etc.  The mean is ascetic, if habits lean one to over-indulgence. This sort of asceticism is still “practiced” I would think.

Asceticism itself can be a trap and entice one to excess. So in all things use moderation except in the love of God and neighbor as one loves oneself.
Jill Raitt, raittj@missouri.edu
University of Missouri.

 The asceticism of following Christ in the Exercises

Having just last evening taught a session of my seminar "Christian Prayer in Theory and Practice," in which we went through the meditation "The Two Standards" from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I've got it pretty clearly in mind at the moment that asceticism in various guises is very much a part of the ongoing Christian spiritual tradition.  (This meditation concludes with what has come to be known as the "Triple Colloquy" –  addressing Mary, Jesus, and God the Father in turn with the request to be accepted into a life "of the highest spiritual poverty and –  if His Divine Majesty would be served and would want to choose them –  no less to actual poverty.") 

Asceticism is "an effect" of following Christ. This allows us to recognize the ascetic aspects of the "corporal works of mercy" which remain the most commonly recognizable forms of Christian spiritual practice in our post-modern times:  college students are still willing to sleep on the floor of a church basement while giving up their spring break to work for Habitat for Humanity.
William A. Clark, SJ, antonkjacobs@earthlink.net
College of the Holy Cross

Wisdom from the sweatlodge

I write this from the Navajo Nation, where I am spending my spring break with a group of students. We just finished a sweat lodge conducted by a Navajo man.  Being half-naked, sweating, cramped, exhausted in the lodge is not inherently a good thing, but it reminds us that wisdom is in the solidarity of shared vulnerability that only happens with careful preparation of spaces for transformation: the sweatlodge, the therapist's office, the classroom, the good liturgy, the mature sexual encounter.

The Reformers’ concern that that we not try to manipulate God can one-sidedly presume that asceticism is about God. I have no illusions that God cares whether I eat meat, fast, give something up for 40 days a year, promise to do more pushups, whatever: God does not need or want my pain, discomfort, or bad habits. But asceticism, askesis, training, implies that I become MORE of something - an athlete, a Christian, a human being.
Patrick Cousins, pcousin1@slu.edu
Campus Ministry, Saint Louis University