Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Meditation On Lent: What is True Asceticism

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  Today we are reminded of just how temporary life is when we receive ashes on our foreheads and are told in the traditional Mass:  "Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return."  One of the antiphons from the traditional Mass sets the tone for Lent, taken from Joel 2:13:
Let us change our raiment for sackcloth and ashes: let us fast and mourn before the Lord: for our God is merciful to forgive us our sins. 
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a journey of mortification and self denial.  Why do this?  Why enter into mortification?  What is the reason for self denial?  We live in a society which is all about self indulgence.  "If it feels good, do it."   "You deserve a break today."  But for the next 40 days, Christians will say no to themselves and yes to God. has a good reading on the meaning of asceticism and the virtues and dangers associated with it.  Self denial and penance are not done in Lent or any other time of the year just for the sake of penance, but to draw us closer to God.  As this reading from warns us, it is possible for penance and self denial to be merely empty expressions which have no spiritual benefit.  If we are not developing humility from our spiritual practices, we may be doing it all in vain. 
The word asceticism comes from the Greek askesis which means practice, bodily exercise, and more especially, athletic training. The early Christians adopted it to signify the practice of the spiritual things, or spiritual exercises performed for the purpose of acquiring the habits of virtue. At present it is not infrequently employed in an opprobrious sense, to designate the religious practices of oriental fanatics as well as those of the Christian saint, both of whom are by some placed in the same category. It is not uncommonly confounded with austerity, even by Catholics, but incorrectly. For although the flesh is continuously lusting against the spirit, and repression and self-denial are necessary to control the animal passions, it would be an error to measure a man's virtue by the extent and character of his bodily penances. External penances even in the saints, are regarded with suspicion. St. Jerome, whose proneness to austerity makes him an especially valuable authority on this point, thus writes to Celantia:
Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.
Thus asceticism according to the definition of St. Jerome, is an effort to attain true perfection, penance being only an auxiliary virtue thereto. It should be noted also that the expression "fasting and abstinence" is commonly used in Scripture and by ascetic writers as a generic term for all sorts of penance. Neither should asceticism be identified with mysticism. For although genuine mysticism can not exist without asceticism, the reverse is not true. One can be an ascetic without being a mystic. Asceticism is ethical; mysticism, largely intellectual. Asceticism has to do with the moral virtues; mysticism is a state of unusual prayer or contemplation. They are distinct from each other, though mutually co-operative. Moreover although asceticism is generally associated with the objectionable features of religion, and is regarded by some as one of them, it may be and is practised by those who affect to be swayed by no religious motives whatever.
The article then shows the difference between natural asceticism and spiritual asceticism. 

If for personal satisfaction, or self interest, or any other merely human reason, a man aims at the acquisition of the natural virtues, for instance, temperance, patience, chastity, meekness, etc., he is, by the very fact, exercising himself in a certain degree of asceticism. For he has entered upon a struggle with his animal nature; and if he is to achieve any measure of success, his efforts must be continuous and protracted. Nor can he exclude the practice of penance. Indeed he will frequently inflict upon himself both bodily and mental pain. He will not even remain within the bounds of strict necessity. He will punish himself severely, either to atone for failures, or to harden his powers of endurance, or to strengthen himself against future failures. He will be commonly described as an ascetic, as in fact he is. For he is endeavouring to subject the material part of his nature to the spiritual, or in other words, he is striving for natural perfection. The defect of this kind of asceticism is that, besides being prone to error in the acts it performs and the means it adopts, its motive is imperfect, or bad. It may be prompted by selfish reasons of utility, pleasure, aestheticism, ostentation, or pride. It is not to be relied upon for serious efforts and may easily give way under the strain of weariness or temptation. Finally, it fails to recognize that perfection consists in the acquisition of something more than natural virtue.
It is prompted by the desire to do the will of God, any personal element of self-satisfaction which enters the motive vitiating it more or less. Its object is the subordination of the lower appetites to the dictates of right reason and the law of God, with the continued and necessary cultivation of the virtues which the Creator intended man to possess.
* * * 
Wherever the Church has been allowed to exert her influence we find virtue of the highest order among her people. Even among those whom the world regards as simple and ignorant there are most amazing perceptions of spiritual truths, intense love of God and of all that relates to Him, sometimes remarkable habits of prayer, purity of life both in individuals and in families, heroic patience in submitting to poverty, bodily suffering, and persecution, magnanimity in forgiving injury, tender solicitude for the poor and afflicted, though they themselves may be almost in the same condition; and what is most characteristic of all, a complete absence of envy of the rich and powerful and a generally undisturbed contentment and happiness in their own lot; while similar results are achieved among the wealthy and great, though not to the same extent. In a word, there is developed an attitude of soul so much at variance with the principles and methods generally obtaining in the pagan world that, from the beginning, and indeed throughout, under the Old Law, it was commonly described and denounced as folly. It might be classified as very lofty asceticism if its practice were not so common, and if the conditions of poverty and suffering in which these virtues are most frequently practised were not the result of physical or social necessity. . . . The motives and the manner of this imitation are laid down in the Gospel, which is the basis taken by ascetical writers for their instructions. This imitation of Christ generally proceeds along three main lines, viz.: mortification of the senses, unworldliness, and detachment from family ties.
* * *
The character of this asceticism is determined by its motive. In the first place a man may serve God in such a way that he is willing to make any sacrifice rather than commit a grievous sin. This disposition of soul, which is the lowest in the spiritual life, is necessary for salvation. Again, he may be willing to make such sacrifices rather than offend God by venial sin. Lastly he may, when there is no question of sin at all, be eager to do whatever will make his life harmonize with that of Christ. It is this last motive which the highest kind of asceticism adopts. These three stages are called by St. Ignatius "the three degrees of humility", for the reason that they are the three steps in the elimination of self, and consequently three great advances towards union with God, who enters the soul in proportion as self is expelled. It is the spiritual state of St. Paul speaks when he says: "And I live, now not I ; but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20). Other ascetic writers describe them as states or conditions of the beginners the proficient and the perfect. They are not, however, to be considered chronologically distinct; as if the perfect man had nothing to do with the methods of the beginner, or vice versa. "The building of the spiritual edifice", says Scaramelli, "is simultaneous in all its parts. The roof is stretched while the foundations are being laid. "Hence the perfect man, even with his sublime motive of imitation, has always need of the fear of damnation, in order that, as St. Ignatius expresses it, if ever the love of God grows cold, the fear of Hell may rekindle it again. On the other hand, the beginner who has broken with mortal sin has already started in his growth to perfect charity. These states are also described as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways.  
It is evident that the practice of unworldliness, of detachment from family and other ties, must be of the greatest number not the actual performance of those things, but only the serious disposition or readiness to make such sacrifices, in case God should require them, which, as a matter of fact in their case, He does not. They are merely affective, and not effective, but none the less they constitute a very sublime kind of spirituality. Sublime as it is, there are many examples of it in the Church, nor is it the exclusive possession of those who have abandoned the world or are about to do so, but it is the possession also of many whom necessity compels to live in the world, married as well as single, of those who are in the enjoyment of honour and wealth and of responsibility as well as of those who are in opposite conditions. They cannot effectively realize their desires or aspirations but their affections take that direction. Thus there are multitudes of men and women who though living in the world are not of it, who have no liking or taste for worldly display, though often compelled by their position, social or otherwise, to assume it, who avoid worldly advancement or honour not out of pusillanimity, but out of unconcern, or contempt, or knowledge of its danger; who, with opportunities for pleasure, practise penance, sometimes of the most rigorous character who would willingly, if it were possible, give up their lives to works of charity or devotion, who love the poor and dispense alms to the extent of, and even beyond, their means, who have strong attraction for prayer, and who withdraw from the world when it is possible for the meditation of divine things; who frequent the sacraments assiduously; who are the soul of every undertaking for the good of their fellow-men and the glory of God; and whose dominant preoccupation is the advancement of the interest of God and the Church. Bishops and priests especially enter into this category. Even the poor and humble, who, having nothing to give, yet would give if they had any possessions, may be classed among such servants of Christ.
I especially appreciate this reading because it shows that outward appearance means nothing.  Many who appear to be very poor and unworldly may not be so at all, and there are those who appear to have all the material good this world can offer and yet have no affection or attachment to it whatsoever and could leave it without a backward glance. 

If you wish to read more of this article on asceticism, go here

As we make our Lenten journey, we should keep in mind that it is not our outward appearances that we are trying to change but our inward attitudes, our emotional attachment to the world and wordly things.  If we do all the right physical mortifications and penances for Lent, but do not change inwardly, we have accomplished nothing.

May you have a blessed and fruitful Lent.

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