To scandalize anyone today, it suffices to suggest to him that he renounce something.1
In revisiting Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I have been struck by how often he speaks against asceticism in a book that is primarily about ascetic practice. Perhaps I should begin by defining the term. it is not one you are likely to hear bantered about as you chat in your local coffee shop.
Asceticism: the practice or way of life of an ascetic.
Ascetic: a person who leads a life of contemplation and self-denial for religious purposes. Anyone who lives with strict self-discipline and without the usual pleasures and comforts.
The backlash seems to come from looking at the practices of early monastics, and even the teaching of scripture from a thoroughly late 20th century western viewpoint. Most of us have been raised on the ideals of self-esteem and self-actualization. We have been infused with the marketing message that we should never deny ourselves, but everything we set our eyes upon can be ours with easy monthly payments.
Asceticism sounds odd or even unhealthy to us because live in societies that are in many significant ways, unhealthy. It sounds odd because few of us know anyone who takes it seriously. We lack role models of devotion.
The problem is, Jesus was much more on the ascetical end of the scale than the self- actualization end.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
The truth is, we cannot follow anyone without denying ourselves. If I choose to marry one person, I have just denied several billion others. If I turn right, I have denied turning left. If I sleep in, I have denied getting up early. Self-denial is part and parcel of a well-ordered life, be it religious or not. To try to not deny self at all is narcissism.
I like Martin Thornton’s definition of asceticism, because I think it puts it in its proper context:
“[A]scetical theology, deal[s] with the fundamental duties and disciplines of the Christian life, which nurture the ordinary ways of prayer, and which discover and foster those spiritual gifts and graces constantly found in ordinary people.”2
I want to highlight several parts of his definition. First, asceticism deals with fundamental duties and disciplines. We are not discussing super-deeds for super-saints. Many like to point to such historical figures as Simon Stylites, who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years, as a negative example of asceticism. Obviously, this is not a practice for everyone to emulate. For those who think it is totally outside of the ways of God, I would call to mind Ezekiel chapter 4 and several instances in the prophet Jeremiah’s life. If we deny that God can have a different “call” in someone’s life than ours, then we have a whole other issue to deal with.
What ascetic practice really points to is prayer. Prayer requires denial. We have to deny all those other things we could be doing during the time we pray. As we draw closer to God, we find that fasting, solitude, silence, study, contemplation and other disciplines serve to aid in and enhance our life of prayer to the Father.
This is the second point from the quote above, asceticism is all about prayer. Prayer being the relationship with our Father in Heaven. The disciplines—ascetic practices—reinforce that relationship. They create space for prayer. Prayer is our primary activity to relate to God.
Third, they are ordinary. They can and ought to be done by ordinary people. They aid the acquisition of ordinary graces and ordinary gifts. Jesus reinforces the ordinariness of some of them in the Sermon on the Mount. “When you give alms, when you fast, when you pray….” These are ordinary religious activities. We practice self-control and self-discipline through asceticism so that we can better live as God has called us to. We spend extended time in prayer, study, and contemplation so we learn to hear and obey the voice of God.
To view asceticism as unhealthy is an unhealthy viewpoint. Without ascetic practice we can have no meaningful relationship to God. Asceticism is just another way of demonstrating that God has priority in our lives. To avoid that kind of discipline reveals that we have our hearts set elsewhere.
1 Dávila, Nicolás Gómez, Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 392
2 Thornton, Martin, English Spirituality: an Outline of Ascetical Theology according to the English Pastoral Tradition, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 1986. p. 19