Saturday, August 21, 2010

Asceticism: Seeing Past Some Skinny Guy Screaming on a Pillar

A long time ago a number of folks decided that it would be a good idea to go into a desert — one particular area in Egypt was a quite popular destination — and come close to starving themselves to death.

Considering what they had to look forward to in Third Century Rome: the decision isn't as daft as it may look.

Besides, they prayed. A lot.

The Desert Fathers got so famous for not eating and for praying a lot that I was running into accounts of them in my high school and college years. The word-image was often one of some lunatic screaming pious phrases while being very skinny at the top of a pillar.

I've gotten the impression that now, over a dozen centuries later, quite a few folks in America have the idea that religious people want to be saints; and that saints are half-starved psychiatric cases residing on top of a pillar.

There's something to that idea: but it's missing some important pieces.

I've written about saints before. It's true: Catholics are expected to try to live "a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2156)

That doesn't necessarily mean stripping down to a loin cloth and starving yourself in the Egyptian desert, though.

Asceticism has Its Place: But Get a Grip

One of the problems with contemporary American — and, I think, Western — culture is that we indulge in physical pleasures too much, and without restraint. That isn't a particularly good idea.

There are, whether we 'believe in it' or not, consequences to indulging in 'pleasures of the flesh.' Take a look at recent headlines on obesity in America, for example.

On the other hand, we're called to holiness: not starvation.

Still, asceticism is a good idea. The Catholic Church encourages us to follow the practice:
"...The season of Lent has traditionally been a time of prolonged penance for the Christian community. Together we prepare for the great Easter mysteries by committing ourselves to fulfill our baptismal call to maturity, holiness, service, and community. Our response to each call will demand sacrifice, mortification, asceticism, and denial of our own self-will. Mortification helps to 'put to death' the cancer cells of sin; asceticism brings a discipline that makes us increasingly free and responsible. Again, this action and grace of the Holy Spirit are what enlighten, enkindle, and empower us to live more fully the way of discipleship...."
(Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics, Doctrine, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
It's not just Lent. A fair number of Catholics in America have restarted the practice of meatless Fridays — including my household. The way my wife prepares fish, though, rather defeats the purpose of the exercise. And that's another topic.

One of those 'secret Vatican documents' you hear about deals with fasting and abstinence:
"...The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam's sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires.(47) This exercise of bodily mortification-far removed from any form of stoicism does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume.(48) On the contrary, mortification aims at the 'liberation'(49) of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained(50) by his own senses. Through "corporal fasting"(51) man regains strength and the 'wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.'(52)..."
(Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini of the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI of Fast and Abstinence, Chapter II)
Asceticism is even mentioned — rather positively — in the Catechism:
"Many religious have consecrated their whole lives to prayer. Hermits, monks, and nuns since the time of the desert fathers have devoted their time to praising God and interceding for his people. The consecrated life cannot be sustained or spread without prayer; it is one of the living sources of contemplation and the spiritual life of the Church."
That bit from the Catechism is an excerpt from a section about prayer, by the way.
So, the Catholic Church is For Spiritual Stuff and Against Material Stuff, Right?

The idea that spirit is good and matter is bad is a heresy. Satan is a spirit, God made the material world, and God doesn't make junk.

God made Satan, too: but that gets me into a discussion of free will. And yet another topic.

The Catholic Church does not teach that the material world is wrong, bad, and icky. Repeating from Pope Paul VI's document:
"...This exercise of bodily mortification-far removed from any form of stoicism does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume...."
(Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, Paul VI, Chapter II [emphasis mine])
There's more about the (wrong) idea that the material world is evil in the Catechism. (285)

I don't think there's too much danger of many Americans deciding that the material world is bad: if anything, we've had a problem with thinking too much about the material world, and enough about spiritual concerns.

On the other hand, I think there is a problem in American culture of assuming that religious people are crazy about rejecting food, drink, and other physical pleasures.

For Catholics, anyway: we're not expected to starve ourselves. The idea, as I see it, is to worship God, not our favorite restaurant.

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