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Christian asceticism

8 March 2008

One of the things that struck me about Philip Pullman’s His dark materials trilogy was that in spite of his apparent rejection of Christian asceticism, he has his protagonists opt for something pretty close to it in the end. It seemed to me to be a strange kind of inconsistency, and a pretty basic one. Perhaps it was because Pullman didn’t really have much clue about what Christian asceticism is all about.

Philip Pullman is proudly anti-Christian, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he wouldn’t bother to learn much about something he despises.

I found it more surprising, however, to read the following in Matt Stone’s blog the other day

Part of my indifference towards fasting, if not outright antipathy, has been the traditional conjunction between it and asceticism. With asceticism being the epitome of mind-body dualism, and incarnational Christianity being its holistic antithesis, I couldn’t see how any discipline that encouraged a distain for the body could actually be all that helpful.

Matt is a Christian, and moreover one who has tried to learn about a wide variety of Christian traditions. So how could he say that asceticism is “the epitome of mind-body dualism, and incarnational Christianity being its holistic antithesis”?

That is almost an exact inversion of what Christian asceticism is all about.

Admittedly Matt does say that in the context of a reevaluation of fasting, but he implies that in reevaluating it he is trying to see fasting as something disconnected with asceticism, which remains a bad thing in his eyes.

What with that, and Lent beginning tomorrow, it seemed to be a good time to try to write something about Christian asceticism, if only to remind myself what I should be doing in Lent.

The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (which has an English and Anglican bias, but tries to report from a range of Christian traditions) notes that the Greek askesis (exercise or training) denotes a system of practices designed to combat vice and develop virtues.

In the NT the word occurs only once — as a verb, askein, ro strive — at Acts 24.16. In 1 Cor. 9.25 the Christian life is compared to the games in which every man that striveth… is temperate in all things. But the idea, present already in the OT, esp in the Wisdom books, is prominent throughout the NT. It is summed up in the Lord’s call to his disciples: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Mk. 8.34), with its emphasis on the two sides of Christian asceticism, the negative one of self-denial and the positive one of the following of Christ. This invitation to practise self-abnegation is frequently reiterated, mostly in very strong terms (Mt. 10.38f., Jn. 12.25), being shown to involve constant watchfulness (Mt. 24.42, 25.13, &C.) and fasting (Mt. 6.16-18; Mk. 2.18-20) and, in many cases, renunciation of all earthly possessions (Mt. 19.21, Mk. 10.28, Lk 9. 57-62), and perpetual chastity (Mt. 19.12). St Paul counsels the same ideal repeatedly inculcating the necessity of keeping up the struggle against the inclinations of the ‘old man’…

The metaphor of struggle is taken up in the Russian term of asceticism, podvig, which indicates the spiritual struggle, or spiritual warfare that Christians are called upon to engage in. The very fact that this spiritual struggle should involve such bodily exercises as fasting should show that it is incarnational, and has nothing to do with a body/mind dualism. In Gesthemane our Lord Jesus Christ urged his disciples to “watch and pray”. When they had struggled to expel demons, he told them that some demons could only come out by prayer and fasting. Watchfulness, prayer and fasting are central to Christian asceticism.

All this is fairly general. But just as there are different Christian traditions, so there are varieties of Christian asceticism. Orthodox asceticism is essentially therapeutic. Bishop Hierotheos of Nafpaktos remarks

Protestants do not have a “therapeutic treatment” position. They suppose that believing in God, intellectually, constitutes salvation. Yet salvation is not a matter of intellectual acceptance of truth; rather it is a person’s transformation and divinization by grace.

As St Paul says, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). It is the whole person, body, soul and spirit, that is to be transformed.

And so we come to the beginning of Lent, and Lent is marked by fasting — abstaining from food, or from certain kinds of food. Why do we do this? In the third chapter of Genesis we read about the fall of man. And the fall was caused by food. Man became alienated and estranged from God by loving food more than God. This is basically idolatry — loving the gift rather than the giver, the creature rather than the creator. So by fasting, the relationship can be transformed, restored, renewed. Our physical hunger is transformed into hunger for God.

And this is not a mind/body dualism, but it is in order, as St Paul says, that we present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable worship (Rom 12:1).

PS: Some interesting comments from C.S. Lewis on asceticism here.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Macrina permalink
    8 March 2008 7:44 pm

    Well said! Its amazing how widespread such attitudes to asceticism are, even among people I would expect to know better. I think that part of the problem in a contemporary Catholic context (which is where I’m coming from) is that people are reacting against an asceticism which had simply become a case of giving things up for the sake of giving things up, or suffering for the sake of suffering, and had lost the connection with transformation. And this also occured in a context – I’m thinking roughly of the modern era, or perhaps a bit earlier – which had lost the earlier connection between mind and body. Faith became about intellectual assent and the body, well, if the body did anything then it gained one merits by suffering. Which is of course a travesty of the early ascetical tradition!

  2. 9 March 2008 4:11 pm

    Thanks for this post, Steve. I appreciate you addressing this issue.

    I think Macrina took the words out of my mouth (uh, fingertips?). Over the last several months, I’ve heard several protestants express their reservations about asceticism. In many cases, the strongest objection I’ve come across has to do with the supposed aloneness of the monastic life and the believe that we are called to live in community. This is obviously a misunderstanding, with the exception of the few extreme hermits.

    But I think there is also some image lingering in the protestant mind of monks whipping themselves until they are bloody as a means of purification. What monastic order(s) (I’m assuming western?) these are, I don’t know. But as with many things from Tradition, I continue to find a vast ignorance (and I say that kindly because until recently I was almost wholly ignorant), and real confusion about the differences between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and practices. How quickly the baby goes out with the bathwater…

  3. 10 March 2008 8:00 am

    Perhaps The da Vinci code contributed to general public ignorance.

  4. 11 March 2008 9:28 pm

    Maybe you’re right, I don’t know. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie.

    It might also have something to do with the general lack of historical knowledge modern Christians have. Looking back over my life as an Evangelical Christian, growing up in church, historical education of the faith was sorely lacking. And if we didn’t learn the events—the mileposts along the way—you can bet we didn’t learn the history and ethos of Christian spirituality through the ages.

    I also think it’s related to our culture’s obsession with a few things: for one, it’s our obsession with fame and celebrity. To say that monasticism is difficult to understand for such a culture is a severe understatement. Why seclude oneself? Why give up one’s autonomy?

    This, of course, leads into our obsession with acquisition of wealth and material goods. Denying oneself runs completely counter to this driving force in our society. And where the gospel has been conflated with American, capitalist ideals, any notion of ascesis probably seems “unChristian”. Why wouldn’t God want me to have that boat, that TV?

    The other thing, it seems, is our unyielding focus on progress and the future. Things of old just don’t matter all that much. The myth of progress says that we are constantly evolving into something better, though the human heart stays the same.

    What do you think?

  5. 11 March 2008 9:32 pm

    Sorry, by “our culture” I’m speaking specifically of my culture, which is American, and indirectly about western countries that often bear similarities.

  6. 12 March 2008 7:17 pm

    from a protestant background, ascetism was first seen as dodgy, and then as wrong. But lately I seem to struggle to get rid of the fasting parts in the Bible (which obviously make is difficult for me as a protestant:-) )

  7. alexmalina permalink
    9 February 2009 7:58 am

    Dear Steve,

    This is a wonderful article! Thank you for writing about the issue and the ignorance many people have towards a practice that is widely misunderstood, even by Christians.

    -Alex

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  1. Some (preliminary) thoughts on asceticism « A vow of conversation

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