2. The doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like.
3. The doctrine that the ascetic life releases the soul from bondage to the body and permits union with the divine.
4. The doctrine that through renunciation of worldly pleasures it is possible to achieve a high spiritual or intellectual state.
5. Rigorous self-denial; extreme abstinence; austerity.
- Asceticism definition
- Natural asceticism
- Christian asceticism
- Jewish asceticism
- Heretical asceticism
- Pagan asceticism
- Theological basis for asceticism
- The practice of mortification
- Psychology of mortification
- Positive aspect of asceticism
Asceticism means the liberation of the human person. The word asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis which means practice, bodily exercise, and more especially, athletic training. Asceticism is defined as a concentration of inner forces and command of oneself, and Our human dignity is related to this. Asceticism, that is to say, leads us to self-mastery and enables us to fulfill the purpose that we have set for ourselves, whatever that may be. A certain measure of ascetic self-denial is thus a necessary element in all that we undertake, whether in athletics or in politics, in scholarly research or in prayer. Without this ascetic concentration of effort we are at the mercy of exterior forces, or of our own emotions and moods; we are reacting rather than acting. Only the ascetic is inwardly free.
Asceticism describes a life characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures. Those who practice ascetic lifestyles often perceive their practices as virtuous and pursue them to achieve greater spirituality. Many ascetics believe the action of purifying the body helps to purify the soul, and thus obtain a greater connection with God and find inner peace. This may take the form of rituals, the renunciation of pleasure, or self-mortification. However, ascetics maintain that self-imposed constraints bring them greater freedom in various areas of their lives, such as increased clarity of thought and the ability to resist potentially destructive temptations. The Christian desert fathers lived extremely austere lifestyles, refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. This is to be understood not as an eschewal of the enjoyment of life, but a recognition that spiritual and religious goals are impeded by such indulgence.
Those who practice ascetic lifestyles do not consider their practices virtuous in themselves, but pursue such a lifestyle to encourage, or 'prepare the ground' for, mind-body transformation.
Historically, there have been two main categories of asceticism: "Otherworldly" asceticism is practiced by people, including monks, yogis and hermits, who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life; famous examples include St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony the Great, and St. Francis of Assisi. Such men forsook their families, possessions, and homes to live an ascetic life, and according to their followers, achieved spiritual enlightenment and intimacy with God. "Worldly" asceticism refers to those who live ascetic lives but don't withdraw from the world; for example Roman Catholic Popes and Roman Catholic priests have made asceticism the personal foundation for their work in society.
Most religions, whether true or false—Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism—have ascetic traditions. However, some people have secular motivations to follow an ascetic lifestyle, such as an artist who deprives himself to clarify his mind for his work or the athlete who deprives himself during training to be at top form for the contest.
The Roman Catholic Raimundo Pannikar adds that asceticism frees us in particular from fear: "True asceticism begins by eliminating the fear of losing what can be lost. The ascetic is the one who has no fear." The prisoner Bobynin, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle, expresses a genuinely ascetic attitude when he says to Abakumov, the Minister of State Security, "I've got nothing, see? Nothing! ... You only have power over, people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything he's no longer in your power - he's free again." How much more free is the one who has not been robbed of everything but with ascetic freedom has given it up by his own choice!
While Berdyaev regards asceticism as an entry into freedom, another Russian thinker, Paul Florensky (1882-1943), links it with beauty: "Asceticism produces not a good but a beautiful personality." He would surely have welcomed the fact that our conference is devoting two of its sessions to the "aesthetics of asceticism." In the eyes of Jacob of Serug (c.449-521), the asceticism of Symeon the Stylite - altogether horrifying by our standards - made possible a revelation of the saint's beauty: "Good gold entered the crucible and manifested its beauty." Even Symeon's gangrenous foot was from the spiritual point of view an object full of beauty: "He watched his foot as it rotted and its flesh decayed. And the foot stood bare like a tree beautiful with branches. He saw-that there was nothing on it but tendons and bones."
In Greco-Roman antiquity, ascetic practice was regarded equally as the pathway to happiness and 'joy. The Cynics saw rigorous self-denial as "part of askesis (training) for happiness." Philo's Therapeutai assembled at great festivals "clad in snow white raiment, joyous but with the height of solemnity," and celebrated the feast by dancing together. The same joyful note re-echoes in the mimra attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-373), On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:
"There is no weeping in their wanderings and no grieving in their gatherings; the praises of the angels above surround them on every side. There is no distress in their death, nor walling at their departing; for their death is the victory with which they conquer the adversary."
Asceticism, 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. 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. 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. 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 practiced by those who affect to be swayed by no religious motives whatever.
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 endeavoring 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.
First of all, early Christian ascetic texts insist repeatedly on the need for moderation in all forms of abstinence and self-restraint. Doubtless this was necessary precisely because some ascetics were immoderate; yet it is nonetheless significant how often the best and most respected authorities issue firm warnings against excess. What distinguishes true from demonic fasting, states Amma Syncletica, is specifically its moderate character: "There is also an excessive asceticism (askesis) that comes from the enemy, and this is practised by his disciples. How then are we to distinguish the divine and royal asceticism from that which is tyrannical and demonic? Clearly, by its moderation." As regards food, the Apophthegmata and other early sources regularly discourage prolonged fasting, and state that the best course is to eat something every day. If we want to fast in the right way, affirms John of Lycopolls, the golden rule is never to eat to satiety, never to stuff one's belly. According to St. Barsanuphius of Gaza, we should always rise from the meal feeling that we should have liked to eat a little more. The same principle applies to the drinking of water: we should restrict our intake, stopping well short of the point where we feel that we cannot possibly drink any more. Sober advice of this kind serves to counterbalance the stories of spectacular and supernatural fasting.
Natural asceticism, it can be argued, is warfare not against the body but for the body. What is asceticism? A system of exercises which submits the body to the spirit. The important element in fasting is not the fact of abstaining from this or that, or of depriving oneself of something by way of punishment; rather its purpose is the "refinement" of our physicality, so that we are more accessible to "the influence of higher forces" and thus approach closer to God. Refinement, not destruction: that is the aim.
Natural asceticism has a positive objective: it seeks not to undermine but to transform the body, rendering it a willing instrument of the spirit, a partner instead of an opponent. As for the body, so far from killing it we are to hold it in honor and to offer it to God as a "living sacrifice" (Rom. 12.1). The Desert Father, Dorotheus, was surely wrong to say of his body, "It kills me, I kill it;" and he was tacitly corrected by another Desert Father, Poemen, who affirmed: "We were taught, not to kill the body, but to kill the passions." The same joyful note re-echoes in the mimra attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-373), On Hermits and Desert Dwellers:
"Their bodies are temples of the Spirit, their-minds are churches; their prayer is pure incense, and their tears are fragrant smoke... They greatly afflict their bodies, not because they do not love their bodies, rather, they want to bring their bodies to Eden in glory."
The Christian life has two aspects, one ascetical, the other mystical. Both terms can describe the whole spiritual journey, but usually they are used in a restrictive sense. The word “ascetical” comes from the Greek askesis, which means exercise, training, discipline. Accordingly, ascetical life is either the whole project of appropriating the divine gift of grace or, more frequently, the work of purification. Ascetical practices are methods and programs designed to restrain the influence of sin and maximize union with God. The whole work is under grace, and grace is the mystical element of christian life. Mysticism is the experience of grace, especially those acts which are consciously beyond ordinary initiative and control, such as contemplation or miraculous powers.
Christian life is radically and ultimately mystical. But it is received and fostered in the personal engagement and struggle of asceticism. Ascetical practices are human strategies for spiritual living. They have elements of effort and method, deprivation, and voluntary suffering.
Asceticism addresses the effects and vagaries of sin, which in turn are the source of further sins. Concupiscence in both blatant and subtle forms as well as systemic sin that infects social reality are encountered in the world, the flesh and the devil. The ensuing struggle involves effort and pain, though the difficulty or suffering do not determine the spiritual value of the enterprise. Effective asceticism is the work of grace, not heroic will power or high tolerance of pain. Salutary collaboration with God is often an experience of human weakness, poverty, and defeat after the manner of the cross of Jesus.
Foundations Christian asceticism is concerned with obstacles to the life of grace, but it is not negative in the same way as classical non- Christian systems like Stoicism or Buddhism. Historically certain Christian movements have looked deceptively like these and similar self denying or world-denying philosophies and religions. But biblical Christianity is not dualistic, as if the body or the world were evil and only the immaterial spiritual soul were good. The world that is the enemy is the flawed world in function of sin as portrayed in John’s gospel. The flesh is not the human body or sexuality as such, but the human person acting apart from grace; the spirit is that same person under the Holy Spirit. The devil is “the enemy of human nature” (Ignatius of Loyola).
Christian asceticism, therefore, is not anti-human, or anti-body or anti- world, though these qualities have sometimes surfaced in history. Such spiritual movements take these mistaken directions from alien sources and sometimes go to the extreme of heresy, as with Gnosticism, Montanism, or Manichaeism. The primary reason for asceticism is not the natural constitution of the world, but the kingdom, the call to transcendence, the demands of the eschatological reality of the gospel. Sin is the refusal of this divine offer. Once it has entered the scene, the infection spreads to every level of human life, there is progressive fragmentation and division in individuals, society, and the world itself. Christ alone is the antidote; he is savior and redeemer. But he calls human beings to collaborate with him and the cooperation is christian asceticism.
Sometimes the strategy is to fight, sometimes flight, and contemporary wisdom emphasizes that all potential obstacles, whether from within, like concupiscence or pride, or from without, like sinful social structures or demonic forces, must be recognized and dealt with in whatever way is wise and prudent.
Practice The gospels call for total renunciation for the sake of the kingdom (e.g., Mk 8:34-35) in absolutes that have never been superseded by subsequent schools or authors. The original call to repentance (metanoia; see Mk 1: 15) is as thoroughgoing as the beatitudes (Mt 5:3- 12). The repentance-kingdom image of the gospels becomes the dying and rising of the paschal mystery in Paul. The paschal mystery subsumes all of life’s vicissitudes (2 Cor 11:23- 33) and places both suffering and consolation at the service of the community (2 Cor 1:4-7). Paul’s comparison of the athlete (1 Cor 9:24-27) relates particularly well to the word “ascetic.” His images of flesh warring against spirit (Rom 8:5- 13), the old man versus the new man (Eph 4:22-24) and the demonic struggle (Eph 6:12) are vivid dramatizations of ascetical struggle.
In early Christianity physical martyrdom was the first recognized form of christian perfection. A spiritual form of martyrdom developed among celibates in the local communities who were called virgins or ascetics and lived an austere lifestyle of prayer and penance. Later this group moved away from pagan society and became the fathers and mothers of the desert. They cultivated specific ascetical practices, such as vigils, fasts, exposure to heat and cold, deprivation of human comforts, silence and solitude, and spiritual combat with demonic powers. After the peace of Constantine (311) cenobitic communities gradually replaced the hermitages, and the common life, expressed in service inside and outside the monastery and celebrated in liturgy, gave balance to the asceticism. This monastic mode became the paradigm of fervent christian living, no doubt with some prejudice to lay life in the world. But a lay model took shape in its own right in the form of an elaborate catechumenate and post-baptismal training.
Medieval asceticism added a few new elements to this basic perspective, notably, a deeper sense of the humanity of Christ, a desire to imitate his suffering, and the wish to retrace his earthly steps in pilgrimage. St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), troubadour of creation but bearer of the stigmata as the first recorded case in history, illustrates the bursting of new life that could no longer be contained in the monastic structures from the past. He is a penitent, though not given to the excesses of the flagellants, an apostolic missioner who would bring the good news to the poor, a warm human being whose ascetical rigor and apostolic zeal left intact his amiable simplicity, joy and fraternal spirit. With Dominic, too, there was a similar conjunction of rigorous asceticism in the form of study and a full community and apostolic life.
At the beginning of modern times the great harbingers of contemporary spirituality—Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales— continued the strong tradition of asceticism. Protestant reformers downplayed asceticism and rejected some traditional forms, notably celibacy and monasticism, in order to proclaim the pure gratuity of grace. The above leaders in the Counter-Reformation, while eminently mystical persons themselves, asserted the necessity of asceticism and taught a rigorous practice in the value of suffering. Suffering was a grace, not for its own sake, but as a sign of identification with Jesus and a proof of pure love of God. Asceticism comes out of life’s circumstances; it is less prepackaged and more the response of love. But it hopes to assimilate the wisdom of the past.
Asceticism is closely related to the Christian concept of chastity and might be said to be the technical implementation of the abstract vows of renunciation. One Christian context of asceticism is the liturgical season of Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, leading up to Easter. During this season Catholics are commanded to practice prayer, fasting, and charitable giving. Fasting is undertaken at the leading of God. Fasting is done in order to seek a closer intimacy with God, as well as an act of petition.
In the Christian Gospels, both the practice of asceticism and also the enjoyment of the good things of the world are depicted, which seem to each have their proper time and place. John the Baptist, forerunner to Jesus, is depicted as a desert ascetic according to the image of an Old Testament Prophet "Clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey" (Mk 1:6). Jesus also is depicted as spending 40 days fasting in the desert and experiencing temptations prior to the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4 1-13). Later, Jesus is frequently depicted sharing and enjoying food and drink with his followers and others, including publicly known sinners, to the scandal of some people. Jesus' followers ask him about this: "They said to him, 'John's disciples often fast and pray and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.' Jesus answered, 'Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast'" (Lk 5:33-35). St. Matthew says, it was St. John the Baptist's disciples themselves that objected this to Christ. Most probably both they and the Pharisees endeavoured all they could to press this objection. (St. Augustine, de cons. Evang. lib. ii. chap. 27) --- Why do you not fast, as is customary with all that wish to regulate their lives according to the law? The reason why the saints fasted was, that they might, by afflicting their bodies, subdue their passions. Jesus Christ, therefore, had no need of fasting, being God, and of course free from every, the least, disorderly motion of concupiscence. Neither did his attendants stand in need of fasting, for being enriched with his grace, they were strengthened in virtue, without the help of fasting. When, therefore, Christ fasted forty days, he fasted to set an example to carnal men. (St. Cyril) --- As long as the Spouse is with us, we are in joy, we cannot fast, we cannot mourn. But when he has been driven away by sin, then we must both fast and weep. (Ven. Bede)
Saint Paul speaks of his own asceticism in his New Testament epistles and also offers some nuance about true and false asceticism. For instance he writes of disciplining his body like an athlete, in order to subordinate it to reason in the service of the Gospel: "Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things. They do this to win a crown of leaves that wither, but we a crown that is imperishable" 1 Cor 9:25.
Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome, St. Ignatius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Through their commentaries, they created an asceticized version of Christianity. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and Saint Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. Other Christian practitioners of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales and Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, Claire of Assisi and numerous others.
The deserts of the middle-east were at one time said to have been inhabited by thousands of hermits amongst whom St. Anthony the Great (aka St. Anthony of the Desert), St. Mary of Egypt, and a particularly unusual example is St. Simeon Stylites, who was a Christian ascetic saint who achieved fame for a life of increasingly strict devotions, culminating in 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar in Syria. Though such piety seems utterly unintelligible today, Simeon's renunciation fit into a pattern of worship that was (relatively) common in Syriac and Egyptian Christianity at the time. Likewise, his particular lifestyle spawned numerous imitators, leading to a brief profusion of stylitism in the centuries following his death.
To the uninformed modern reader, early monastic asceticism may seem to be only about sexual renunciation. However, sexual abstinence was merely one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than lust and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the desert fathers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust").
Catholic Christians have strongly tended to view fasting, chastity and other ascetic practice as oriented toward desire and love for Christ (the "bridegroom" of the Church, still really present, these traditions believe, in the Eucharist) over and above all other things, even though the entire creation is affirmed as good. In Catholic theology this is expressed as an inseparable relationship between ascetical and mystical theology, as if the human and divine dimensions of living the Christian spiritual life of incarnate divine love, for instance as described by St. John of the Cross.
Asceticism within Catholic tradition includes spiritual disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation by expressing one's repentance for sin and cultivating the virtues, with the ultimate aim of purifying the heart and mind, by God's grace, for encounter with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fruit of the ascetical life is the flourishing of the soul in the love of God and neighbor in preparation for the vision of God in eternity.
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 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, it was commonly described and denounced as folly. In New Law we have not merely the reaffirmation of the precepts of the Old, but also the teachings and example of Christ Who, besides requiring obedience to the Commandments, continually appeals to His followers for proofs of personal affection and a closer imitation of His life than is possible by the mere fulfillment of the Law. The motives and the manner of this imitation are laid down in the Gospel, which as 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.
It is here especially that asceticism comes in for censure on the part of its opponents. Mortification, unworldliness, and detachment are particularly obnoxious to them. But in answer to their objection it will be sufficient to note that condemnations of such practices or aspirations must fall on Holy Scripture also, for it gives a distinct warrant for all three. Thus we have, as regards mortification, the words of St. Paul, who says: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (1 Corinthians 9:27); while Our Lord Himself says: "He that taketh not up his cross, and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:38). Commending unworldliness, we have: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36); approving detachment, there is the text, not to cite others: "if any man come to Me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26). It is scarcely necessary to note however, that the word "hate" is not to be taken in its strict sense, but only as indicating a greater love for God than for all things together. Such is the general scheme of this higher order of asceticism.
That this asceticism is not only attainable but attained by laymen serves to bring out the truth which is sometimes lost sight of, viz., that the practice of perfection is not restricted to the religious state. In fact, though one may live in the state of perfection, that is, be a member of a religious order, he may be surpassed in perfection by a layman in the world. But to reduce these sublime dispositions to actual practice, to make them not only affective but effective to realize what Christ meant when, after having told the multitude on the Mount of the blessedness of poverty of spirit, He said to the Apostles, "Blessed are you who are poor", and to reproduce also the other virtues of Christ and the Apostles, the Church has established a life of actual poverty, chastity, and obedience. For that purpose, it has founded religious orders, thus enabling those who are desirous and able to practice this higher order of asceticism, to do so with greater facility and in greater security.
Asceticism in the Early Church
The term "asceticism" comes from the Greek word "askesis," which signifies the exercise or training of athletes in preparation for their participation in the athletic games. Obviously, the training of athletes demand various kinds of restrictions and self-denial, but it is always for the purpose of competing in order to win. This is the way St. Paul applies the concept of asceticism to the Christian life:
"Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air: But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
"I chastise"... Here St. Paul shews the necessity of self-denial and mortification, to subdue the flesh, and its inordinate desires (Douay-Rheims Commentary).
It is worth noting that the ancient Greek philosophers also advocated the practice of the basic human virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence; accordingly, they insisted on the need to control the movements of the passions and the demands of self-centered love. Not only that, but we find similar teaching in the pagan religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but always for the purpose offering the individual from the desires and cravings of the sensate life in order to rise to a state of illumination and transcendence.
In the first centuries of the Christian era, the period of persecution, the faithful avoided excessive contact with the world, and especially the pagan feasts and games, which were often marked by immorality and cruelty. The community liturgy was necessarily celebrated in private, but the faithful also practiced personal prayer several times each day; on Wednesdays and Fridays they fasted from food and drink until the middle of the afternoon. However, what won the admiration of the pagans was their fraternal charity and the way they cared for each other. "These Christians, how they love one another!"
With the Peace of Constantine (313), Christians were given full citizenship in the Roman Empire. This new freedom gave rise to what would become the monastic movement in the Church. Thus, Paul Evdokimov states: "It is no longer the pagan world that fights and eliminates the world from his being". In the same context, Fenelon wrote: "The persecution made less solitaries than did the peace and triumph of the Church. The Christians, simple and opposed to any softness, were more fearful of a peace that might be gratifying to the senses than they had been of the cruelty of the tyrants" (Oeuvres, vol. 17, p. 396).
Under the leadership of St. Pachomius and St. Basil the monastic way of life was characterized by certain ascetical practices such as separation from the world, solitude, celibacy, poverty, fasts and vigils, bodily penitential practices, manual labor, life in community and obedience to a superior. At the same time there was an increasing number of women who embraced the life of consecrated virginity but remained in the city and in their own homes. In time the Church drew up regulations governing this type of life and gave these consecrated women a special garb, of which the veil was the most important article of clothing. Both the monks or hermits and the consecrated virgins were considered to be "ascetics"; that is, they were persons dedicated to a lifestyle that was inspired and regulated by the Gospel. Logically, they soon became witnesses and models of Christian holiness and for that reason were held in veneration. Throughout the history of the Church the consecrated life has taken various forms, but generally it always preserved the practices of asceticism with a view to growth in holiness.
Monastic or religious asceticism
The establishment of religious orders was not the result of any sudden or mandatory legislation by the Church. On the contrary, the germs of religious life were implanted in it by Christ Himself from the very beginning. For in the Gospel we have repeated invitations to follow the evangelical counsels. Hence in the first days of the Church, we find that particular kind of asceticism widely practiced which later developed into the form adopted by the Religious Orders. In the "History of the Roman Breviary" by Batiffol (tr. Bayley), 15, we read: "In proportion as the Church in extending itself had grown colder, there had taken place within its bosom a drawing together of those souls which were possessed of the greatest zeal and fervor. These consisted of men and women, alike, living in the world without severing themselves from the ties and obligations of ordinary life, yet binding themselves by private vow or public profession to live in chastity all their life, to fast all the week, to spend their days in prayer. They were called in Syria Monazonites and Parthenae , ascetics and virgins. They formed, as it were, a third order, a confraternity. In the first half of the fourth century, we find these associations of ascetics and virgins established in all the great Churches of the East, at Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa." Men like Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and others wrote and legislated for them. They had a special place in the church services and it is noteworthy also that at Antioch "the ascetics there formed the main body of the Nicene or orthodox party". But "dating from the reign of Theodosius and the time when Catholicism became the social religion of the world, comes the movement when a deep cleavage in religious society manifested itself. These ascetics and virgins, who, till now, have mingled with the common body of the faithful, abandon the world and go forth into the wilderness. The Church of the multitude is no longer a sufficiently holy city for these pure ones; they go forth to build in the desert the Jerusalem which they crave." (Cf. Duchesne, Christian Worship.)
The time when these foundations began is said by Batiffol to be "when Catholicism became the social religion". Previous to that, with their pagan surroundings, such establishments would have been out of the question. The instinct for monastic institutions was there, but its realization was delayed. Those who enter a religious order take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which are considered here only in as much as they differentiate a particular kind of asceticism from other forms. They are called substantial vows because they are the basis of a permanent and fixed condition or state of life, and affect, modify, determine, and direct the whole attitude of one who is bound by them in his relations to the world and to God. They constitute a mode of existence which has no other purpose than that some of these penitents may have the attainment of the highest spiritual perfection. Being perpetual, they ensure permanence in practice of virtue and prevent it from being intermittent and sporadic; being an absolute, free, (irrevocable), and complete surrender of the most precious possessions of man, their fulfillment creates a spirituality, or a species of asceticism, of the most heroic character. Indeed it is inconceivable what more one can offer to God, or how these virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience can be exercised in a higher degree. That the observance of these vows is a reproduction of the manner of life of Christ and the Apostles, and has, as a consequence, given countless saints to the Church, is a sufficient answer to the accusation that the obligations they impose are degrading, inhuman, and cruel, a reproach often urged against them.
While concurring in the practice of the same fundamental virtues, the religious bodies are differentiated from one another by the particular object which prompted their separate formation, namely, some need of the Church, some new movement which had to be combated, some spiritual or corporal aid that had to be brought to mankind, etc. From this there resulted that besides the observance of the three main virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience some special virtue is cultivated by each. Thus the beginning of Christianity, when labor was considered a badge of slavery, the great, the learned, the noble, as well as the humble, the ignorant, and the poor, filled the deserts of Egypt and supported themselves by manual labor, their withdrawal from the world being also a protest against the corruption of paganism. After the destruction of the Roman Empire the Benedictines taught the barbarians agriculture, the arts, letters, architecture, etc., while inculcating the virtues of Christianity; the poverty of the Franciscans was a condemnation of the luxury and extravagance of the age in which they originated; the need of protecting the faithful from heresy gave rise to the Order of Preachers; rebellion against authority and defection from the Pope called for special emphasis on obedience and loyalty to Holy See by the Society of Jesus, the defense the Holy Land created the Military Orders; redemption of captives, the care of the sick and poor, education, missionary work, etc. all called into existence an immense variety of congregations, whose energies were directed along one special line of good works, with the consequent development to an unusual degree of the virtues which were needed to attain that special end. Meantime, the rules, covering every detail and every moment of their daily lives, called for the practice of all the other virtues.
In some of the orders the rules make no mention of corporal penance at all, leaving that to individual devotion; in others great austerity is prescribed but excess is provided against both by the fact the rules have been subjected to pontifical approval and because superiors can grant exceptions. That such penitential practices produce morbid and gloomy characters is absurd to those who know the lightheartedness that prevails in strict religious communities; that they are injurious to health and abbreviate life cannot be seriously maintained in view the remarkable longevity noted among the members of very austere orders. It is true the lives of the saints we meet with some very extraordinary mortifications. Besides it must not be forgotten that these practices went hand to hand with the cultivation of the sublimest virtues, that they were for the most part performed in secret, and in no case for ostentation and display. The virtue of prudence is a part of asceticism. The reformation or abolition of certain orders because of corruption only emphasizes the truth that monastic asceticism means an organized effort to attain perfection. If that purpose is kept in view, the order continues to exist; if it ceases to be ascetic in its life, it is abolished.
A common accusation against religious asceticism is that it is synonymous with idleness. Such a charge ignores all past and contemporary history. It was the ascetic monks who virtually created our present civilizations by teaching the barbarian tribes the value and dignity of manual labor; by training them in the mechanical arts, in agriculture, in architecture, etc.; by reclaiming swamps and forests, and forming industrial centres from which great cities developed, not to speak of the institutions of learning which they everywhere established. Omitting the especially prominent instances now before the world, namely the vast amount of industry and toil implied in the establishment, organization, management, and support of tens of thousands of asylums, hospitals, refuges, and schools in civilized lands by men and women who are wearing themselves out in laboring for the good of humanity, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women bound by vows and practicing religious asceticism who, without any compensation to themselves except the supernatural one of sacrificing themselves for others, are at the present moment laboring among savage tribes all over the world, teaching them to build houses, till their fields, work at trades, care for their families while at the same time imparting to them human learning in the drudgery of schools, and leading them in the way of salvation. Idleness and asceticism are absolutely incompatible with each other, and the monastic institution where idleness prevails has already lost its asceticism and, if not swept away by some special upheaval, will be abolished by ecclesiastical legislation. The precept which St. Paul laid down for ordinary Christians has always been a fundamental principle of genuine asceticism: "If any man will not work, neither let him eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But, as a matter of fact, the Church has seldom had to resort to such a drastic measure as destruction. She has easily reformed the religious orders which, while giving her many of her most learned men and illustrious saints, have been ever a source of pride because of the stupendous work they have achieved, not only for the honor of God and the advancement of the Church, but in uplifting; humanity leading it in the ways of virtue and holiness, and establishing institutions of benevolence and charity for every species of human suffering and sorrow.
In apparent contradiction with the assertion that the highest expression of asceticism is to be found in monastic life is the fact that monasticism not only exists in the pagan religions of India, but is associated with great moral depravity. Attempts have been made to show that these Hindu institutions are merely travesties of Christian monasteries, probably those of the old Nestorians, or the result of primitive Christian traditions. But neither of these suppositions can be accepted. For, although, doubtless, Indian monasticism in the course of ages borrowed some of its practices from Nestorianism, the fact is that it existed before the Coming of Christ. The explanation of it is that it is nothing else than the outcome of the natural religious instinct of man to withdraw from the world for meditation, prayer, and spiritual improvement instances of which might be cited among the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, and among ourselves in the Brook Farm and other American experiments. But they were merely imitations or the promptings of a natural instinct, it only goes to show, in the first place, that monastic seclusion is not unnatural to man; and secondly, that some Divinely constituted authority is new to guide this natural propensity and to prevent it from falling into those extravagances to which religious enthusiasm is prone. In other words, there must be an acknowledged and absolute spiritual power to legislate for it along the lines of truth and virtue, to censure and condemn and punish what is wrong in individuals and associations; a power able to determine infallibly what is morally right and wrong. The Catholic church alone claims that power. It has always recognized the ascetic instinct in man, has approved associations for the cultivation of religious perfection, has laid down minute rules for their guidance, has always exercised the strictest surveillance over them, and has never hesitated to abolish them when they were intended. Moreover, as genuine asceticism does not rest satisfied with natural, but aims at supernatural, perfection, and as the supernatural in the New Dispensation is in the guardianship of the Catholic Church, under its guidance alone is asceticism secure.
The history of Jewish asceticism goes back thousands of years with references to the Nazirite vow of refraining from cutting one's hair or beard and not partaking of grapes or wine (Numbers 6), as well as the "wilderness tradition" of prophets living in the desert, fasting on mountaintops, or engaging in various other types of self-denial. For example, both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai, Jeremiah did not marry (Jeremiah 16:2), Isaiah went naked for three years (Isaiah 20), and Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days, eating only bread (Ezekiel 4:9). Besides the ordinary observers of the Old Law, we have the great Hebrew saints and prophets whose deeds are recorded in the Holy Bible. They were ascetics who practiced the loftiest virtue, who were adorned with remarkable spiritual gifts, and consecrated themselves to the service of God and their fellow-men. As to the Schools of the Prophets, whatever they may have been, it is admitted that one of the objects intended was the practice of virtue, and in that respect they may be regarded as schools of asceticism. The Nazarites were men who consecrated themselves by a perpetual or temporary vow to abstain all the days of their Nazariteship, that is, during their separation from the rest of the people, from the use of wine and all other intoxicating drink, from vinegar formed from wine or strong drink, from any liquor of grapes, from grapes dried or fresh, and indeed from the use of anything produced from the vine. Other observances which were of obligation, such as letting the hair grow, avoiding defilement, etc., were ceremonial rather than ascetic. The Nazarites were exclusively men, and there is said to be no instance in the Old Testament of a female Nazarite. They were a class of persons "holy to the Lord" in a special sense, and made their vow of abstinence an example of self-denial and moderation and a protest against the indulgent habits of the Chanaanites which were invading the people of Israel. Samson and Samuel were consecrated by their mothers to this kind of life. It is not certain that they lived apart in distinct communities; like the Sons of the Prophets, though there is an instance of three hundred of them being found together at the same time.
The Rechabites - the descendants of Rechab through Jonadab or Jehonadab. They belonged to the Kenites who accompanied the children of Israel into the holy land, and dwelt among them. Moses married a Kenite wife, and Jael was the wife of "Heber the Kenite". Saul also showed kindness to the Kenites. The main body of the Kenites dwelt in cities, and adopted settled habits of life; but Jehonadab forbade his descendants to drink wine or to live in cities. They were commanded to lead always a nomad life. They adhered to the law laid down by Jonadab, and were noted for their fidelity to the old-established custom of their family in the days of Jeremiah (35); and this feature of their character is referred to by God for the purpose of giving point to his message to Judah. The Rechabites, whom, however, Josephus does not mention, appear to have been a normal tribe, distinguished chiefly by their abstinence from wine. There were also Essenes who lived a communal life, possessed no individual property, affected an extreme simplicity in diet and dress, and lived apart from great cities to preserve themselves from contamination. Some of them abjured marriage. They devoted themselves to the sick, and for that purpose made a special study of the curative qualities of herbs and boasted of possessing medical recipes handed down from Solomon. Hence their name, Essenes, or Healers. Finally come the Pharisees, who were the Puritans of the Old law, but whose virtues and austerities we know to have been often only pretence, although there were, doubtless, among them some who were in earnest in the practice of virtue. St. Paul describes himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Outside of Judea, there were said to be a certain number of Jews, men and women, living on the shores of Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria, who mingled their own religious observances with those of the Egyptians, and who lived a life of voluntary poverty, chastity, labour, solitude, and prayer. They were called Therapeutae, which, like Essenes, means Healers. Rappoport, in his "History of Egypt" (XI. 29), says that a certain class of the Egyptian priesthood led a similar kind of life. We know of the Therapeutae only from Philo. How true his descriptions are not be determined.
In the second century of the Church appear the Encratites, or The Austere. They were a section of the heretical Gnostics, chiefly Syrians, who, because of their erroneous views about matter, withdrew from all contact with the world, and denounced marriage as impure. About the same period came the Montanists, who forbade second marriage, enjoined rigorous fasts, insisted on the perpetual exclusion from the Church of those who had ever committed grievous sin, stigmatized flight in time of persecution as reprehensible, protested that virgins should be always veiled, reprobated paintings, statuary, military service, theatres, and all worldly sciences. In the third century the Manichaeans held marriage to be unlawful and refrained from wine, meat, milk, and eggs; all of which did not deter them from the grossest immorality. The Flagellants were a sect that began about 1260. They journeyed from place to place in Italy, Austria, Bohemia, Bavaria, and Poland, scourging themselves to blood, ostensibly to excite the populace to contrition for their sins, but they were soon prohibited by the ecclesiastical authorities. They appeared again in the fourteenth century, in Hungary, Germany, and England. Pope Clement VI issued a Bull against them in 1349, and the Inquisition pursued them with such vigour that they disappeared altogether. They were bitter enemies of the Church. The Cathari of the twelfth century were, as their name implies, Puritans. Though teaching the doctrines of the Manichæans, they affected to live a purer life than the rest of the Church. Chief among them were the Waldenses, or "Poor Men of Lyons", who accepted evangelical poverty and then defied the Pope, who suppressed them. Although Protestantism has been incessant in its denunciations of asceticism, it is amazing to note how many extreme instances of it the history of Protestantism furnishes. The Puritans of England and New England, with their despotic and cruel laws which imposed all sorts of restrictions not only upon themselves, but upon others, are examples of misguided ascetics. The early Methodists, with their denunciations of all amusements, dancing, theatres, card-playing, Sunday enjoyments, etc., were ascetics. The numberless Socialistic colonies and settlements which have sprung up in all countries are illustrations of the same spirit.
Among the Greeks, we have the school, or quasi-community of Pythagoras, whose object was to extirpate the passions, but it was philosophic rather than religious in its character and may be placed in the category of Natural Asceticism.
It is frequently contended that an asceticism exists among the Brahmins of India which in some respects is similar to that of Christianity. It inculcates the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, self-control, obedience, temperance, alms-giving, care of the sick, meekness, forgiveness of injuries, returning good for evil, etc. It forbids suicide, abortion, perjury, slander, drunkenness, gluttony, usury, hypocrisy, slothfulness, and cruelty to animals. Ten vows bind the Brahmin to the practice of some of these virtues. Its practice of penance is extraordinary. Besides what is left to personal initiative, the Laws of Manu decree that: the Brahmin should roll himself on the ground or stand during the day tip-toe or alternately stand and sit. In summer let him expose himself to the heat of five fires, during the rainy season, let him live under the open sky; and in winter be dressed in wet clothes, thus great increasing the rigour of his austerities." Protracted fasts of the most fantastic character are also enjoined. In all this, there is no asceticism. These suicidal penances, apart from their wickedness and absurdity, are based on a misconception of the purpose of mortification. They are not supposed to atone for sin or to acquire merit, but are prompt by the idea that the greater the austerity the greater the holiness, and that besides hastening absorption in the divinity they will help the penitent to obtain such a mastery over his body as to make it invisible at will, to float in the air, or pass with lighting speed from place to place. Being believers in metempsychosis, they regard these sufferings as a means of avoiding the punishment of new births under the form of other creatures.
Their pantheism destroys the very essential idea of virtue, for there can be no virtue, as there can be no vice, where one is a part of the deity. Again, the belief that there is no reality outside of Brahma prevents the use or abuse of creatures from having any influence on the righteous or unrighteous condition of the soul. Finally, as the end of existence is absorption into Brahma, with its attendant loss of personality and its adoption of an unconscious existence for all future time, it holds out no inducement to the practice of virtue. The whole system is based on pride. The Brahmin is superior to all mankind, and contact with another caste than his own, especially the poor and humble, is pollution. It makes marriage obligatory, but compels the wife to adore the husband no matter how cruel he is, permitting him to reject her at will; it encourages polygamy, approves of the harem, and authorizes the burning of widows in the suttees which the British Goverment has not yet succeeded in preventing. It abhors manual labour and compels the practice of mendicancy and idleness, and it has done nothing for the physical betterment of the human race, as the condition of India for many centuries clearly shows. Its spiritual results are no better. Its liturgy is made up of the most disgusting, childish, and cruel superstitions, and its contradictory combinations of pantheism, materialism, and idealism have developed a system of cruel divinities worse than those of pagan antiquity. It is consequently not real asceticism.
The ascetical practices of the Buddhists are monastic in their character, the devotees living in communities, whereas the Brahmins are mostly solitaries, though admitting pupils. The moral codes of both sects resemble each other in some respects. For the Buddhists, there are five great duties: not to kill any living creature, not to steal, not to act unchastely, not to lie, not to drink intoxicating liquor. The eight-fold path of virtues is: right beliefs, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavour, right memory, right meditation. The cultivation of meekness, both internal and external, is expressedly inculcated. In the monasteries, confession of faults, but only of external ones, is practised, and great importance is attached to meditation. Their penances are comparatively moderate. Nevertheless, in spite of its glorification of virtue, this manner of life can not be regarded as asceticism. While holding its indifferent to the pantheism and other errors of Brahmanism, it ignores God entirely, and is atheistic or agnostic, admitting no dependence on the Divinity and acknowledging no obligation of worship, obedience, love, gratitude, belief; consequently, eliminating all virtue. Its avoidance of sin is purely utilitarian viz., to escape its consequences. Its ultimate end is extinction in Nirvana, thus having no inducement to virtue, while it accords the lower state of Swarga, with its sensual delights, to those who were helpful to the Buddhas. Like its predecessor, its idea of ultimate extinction is an extension of the Brahminist absorption and leads logically to suicide. It holds marriage in abhorrence, and suppresses all legitimate desires forbidding all recreation, music, movie, scientific pursuits, etc. Industrial occupations are regarded with contempt, and the ideal state is beggary and idleness. Although insisting upon celibacy as the proper state of man, it tolerates polygamy and divorce. It speaks most complacently of Buddha's many hundred wives, before his conversion; lauds the extensive seraglio of Bimbissasa, its most distinguished royal convert, without hinting at its being any derogation from the standard of conduct of a Buddhist layman, while "the official head of Southern Buddhism at the present day, the King of Siam, exercises without scruple the privilege of maintaining a harem" (Aiken). It did not abolish the caste system except in the monasteries. Finally, "in the spread of this religion to other lands it adopted the idolatrous and obscene worship of Nepal; gave its sanction to the degrading shamanistic worship of Thibet, and is overlaid with the superstitions peculiar to China, Mongolia and Thibet." It is an abuse of terms to describe the practices of such a creed as asceticism.
In conclusion, it may be said the difference between false and true asceticism is this: false asceticism starts out with a wrong idea of the nature of man, of the world, of God; it proposes to follow human reason, but soon falls into folly and become fanatical, and sometimes insane in its methods and projects. With an exaggerated idea of the rights and powers of the individual, it rebels against all spiritual control and, usurping a greater authority than the Church has ever claimed, leads its dupes into the widest extravagances. Its history is one of disturbance, disorder and anarchy, and is barren of results in the acquisition of truth or the uplifting of the individual and it works of benevolence or intellectual progress; and in some instances it has been the instrument of the most deplorable moral degradation. True asceticism, on the contrary, is guided by right reason, assisted by the light of revelation; it comprehends clearly the true nature of man, his destiny, and his obligations. Knowing that he has not been created in a merely natural condition, but elevated to a supernatural state, it seeks to illumine his mind and strengthen his will by supernatural grace. Aware that he has to control his lower passions and withstand the assaults of the evil spirit and seductions of the world, it not only permits, but enjoins, the practice of penance, while by the virtue of prudence which it inculcates, it prevents excess. Instead of withdrawing him from his fellow men and inducing moroseness and pride, it bestows on him joy and humility, inspires him with the greatest love for humanity, and cultivate that spirit of self-sacrifice which has, by its works of benevolence and charity, conferred countless benefits on the humane race. In a word, asceticism is nothing else than an enlightened method adopted in the observance of the law of God through all the various degrees of service, from the obedience of the ordinary believer to the absorbing devotion of the greatest saint, guiding each in accordance with the measure of grace imparted by the Spirit of Light and Truth.
Theological basis for asceticism
Although the Christian receives the life of grace at baptism and is thereby incorporated into the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ and his Church, the supernatural life does not bring with it the preternatural gifts of soul and body that adorned our first parents at their creation. Rather, the consequences of their original sin still make the human nature a wounded and divided nature. As St. Paul puts it: "For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another" (Gal. 5:17). For that reason, to respond to the vocation to holiness, it is necessary to wage a relentless warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil, because each in its own way is a source of temptation and sin.
The attainment of sanctity is, of course, above all the work of God, but it calls for cooperation on the part of the individual Christian. St. Augustine put the matter so clearly when he said that God gives us the grace to love him, and when we love him, he gives us the grace to love him more. This is an important statement because throughout the history of Christian spirituality there has been a tendency either to make the human being the total master of his spiritual destiny (Pelagianism) or to make God the exclusive and unique agent (Quietism). As so often happens, the truth lies in the middle of the two extremes. It is not a question of "either -- or" but of "both – and."
The ascetical struggle has a two fold aspect. The first aspect is sometimes called mortification, purgation or self-denial, and by this is meant the effort to destroy sin and its effects in our lives, to control our evil inclinations and eventually to renounce anything that could be an obstacle to our growth in the love of God and of neighbor. The practices of mortification and self-denial must be continued throughout one's lifetime because we are always faced with temptations to satisfy our selfish desires and inclinations. Not only that, but according to the teaching of St. John of the Cross, even when we have done all we can to purge ourselves of the effects of original and personal sin in what he calls the "active" purgation, it is still necessary for the Holy Spirit to complete the purification by means of the "passive" purgation. St. John of the Cross treats of these two type's of purgation in his work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul.
The practice of mortification
Since the human person is composed of body and soul, flesh and spirit, it is necessary to purge or mortify oneself on both the sense level and the spiritual level. But one should begin with mortification of the sensate life because, as St. John of the Cross has stated, if we stop the enemy at the gates (the external senses), he cannot get inside to destroy the city. For that reason a basic rule for Christian living is to avoid the occasions of sin; that is, to recognize what persons, places or things constitute a temptation for a given individual. One of the greatest protective measures against sin is resolutely to distance oneself from anyone or anything that would be an obstacle to one's growth in the spiritual life. This rule makes just as much sense as to tell a diabetic to avoid sugar or to insist that a dangerously overweight person should adhere to a strict diet.
That, however, is only the first step on the journey through the "dark night" of purgation. Little would be accomplished in terms of the spiritual life if one avoided all occasions of sin but remained in the grip of concupiscence. This is the term -- concupiscence -- that the theologians and spiritual writers traditionally used in order to designate one's predominating self-centered desire. The first law of nature is self-preservation, which means that we have obligation to satisfy our vital needs. But we also have a "wounded" nature that suffers from the effects of original sin, augmented by the effects of our own personal sins. As a result, we readily overshoot the mark and tend to go to extremes in satisfying our own personal desires. In fact, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, every sin, no matter what its label, is ultimately a sin of self-centered love; choosing self when one should choose God or neighbor.
Consequently, the individual Christian who wants to make progress in grace and charity must eventually deal with this inner conflict and warfare. One must not only avoid occasions of sin and put sin out of one's life; one must also quench the flame of desire that afflicts and torments him. The teaching of St. John of the Cross is very helpful in this respect.
"He that loves a creature becomes as low as that creature ant in some ways, lower; for love not only makes the lover equal to the object of his love, but even subjects him to it. Hence in the same way it comes to pass that the soul that loves anything else [apart from God] becomes incapable of pure union with God and transformation in him . . . Therefore, it is supreme ignorance for the soul to think that it will be able to pass to this high estate of union with God unless it first rids itself of the desire for all things, natural and supernatural, which may be a hindrance to it . . .
"It is well known by experience that when the will of a person is attached to one thing, he prizes it above everything else; although some other things may be much better, he takes less pleasure in it. And if he wishes to enjoy both, he is bound to depreciate the more important one because he makes an equality between them. Therefore, since there is nothing that equals God, the soul that loves some other thing together with God, or clings to it, does a serious wrong to God. And if this is so, what would the soul be doing that loves anything more than God?" (Ascent, Book I, chap. 5).
One statement in the above quotation needs a clarification. If the love of something beneath us brings us down to the level of what is loved, then how can God love us, his creatures and still remain the infinite God that he is? The answer lies in the distinction between the various kinds of love. If one loves a lesser good with an exclusively self-centered love such as the sensate love that the theologians called "concupiscible," then the object that is loved will draw the lover to itself. But if one loves with the generous gift love that the theologians described as ''beneficent'' love, then the effect of that love is the greater perfection of the one who is loved. For that reason, St. Thomas Aquinas stated that God does not love us because we are good, but that we are good in the measure that God loves us.
Psychology of mortification
It may come as a surprise to some persons to find that St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, and St. John of the Cross, writing in the sixteenth century, formulated certain psychological principles that contemporary psychologists can support wholeheartedly. One of these principles is what is called today the "principle of reality." What it means is simply that in opting for one of two incompatible choices, the individual must give up one of the alternatives. This same psychological principle lies at the heart of mortification and it is expressed as follows by St. John of the Cross:
"The more closely a thing is drawn to one extreme, the farther removed the withdrawn it becomes from the other; and when it comes to rest perfectly in the one, it will also have withdrawn itself perfectly from the other. Therefore there is a commonly quoted spiritual maxim which says: . . . "After having tasted the things of the spirit, everything carnal is unpalatable." . . . And this is clear, because if it is spirit, it has nothing to do wit the sensate; and if sense can comprehend it, it is no longer pure spirit. Hence, the more one can grasp it through natural apprehension and sense, the less it has of spirit and of the supernatural" (Ascent, Book II, chap. 17).
The isolated choice of a sensate satisfaction or pleasure, even in sinful matter, can be remedied rather quickly as long as one's intention remains firmly fixed on God. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding those whose life is normally free of serious sin (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 186, art. 10). But when a sensate or sinful choice becomes habitual, it can easily reach the stage of an addiction. This is the area of compulsive activity, as is evident, for example, in drug addiction or alcoholism. The sensate addiction is so strong that the will of the individual seems to be powerless when confronted with the sensate stimulus or, as theologians would say, the occasion of sin. At this point the words of St. Paul take on an added significance:
"Those who live according to the flesh are intent on the things of the flesh; those who live according to the spirit, on those of the spirit" (Rom. 8:5).
"We know that the law is spiritual, whereas I am weak flesh sold into the slavery of sin. I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do, but what I hate. When I act against my own will, by that very fact I agree that the law is good. This indicates that it is not I who do it but sin which resides in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; the desire to do right is there but not the power. What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but sin which dwells in me. This means that even if I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always ready at hand. My inner self agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body's members another law at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death? All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! So with my mind I serve the law of God but with my flesh the law of sin" (Rom. 7:14-25).
From the teaching of St. Paul and St. John of the Cross it is evident that addiction to sensate satisfactions and pleasures cannot be fully broken until one has laid the axe at the root of the problem: one's sensate desires. The sensate inclinations may spring from our natural body needs in the area of procreation and nutrition, for example, or from the artificial body needs that the individual has cultivated, such as the use of drugs, smoking or drinking. But in either the addiction can be so strong that the individual feels powerless to resist it. Consequently, in addition to avoiding occasions of sin and praying (as it is said that St. Augustine prayed before his conversion: "Lord, make me want to love you!"), one should also take steps to cultivate the virtues that are the basic elements of a good Christian character and maturity.
Positive aspect of asceticism
We have already stated that the first phase of asceticism comprises self-denial and mortification; the positive aspect pertains to the cultivation of the virtues. When we speak about the virtues, we are speaking about strength of character and morally good habits. We are creatures of habit, and whereas our natural and sensate inclinations flow largely from our temperament, the formation of our character depends on the types of habits we have cultivated and perfected. To put it another way, we all have moral predispositions to good and to evil, and in order to form a good and right character, it is necessary to control and deny our evil inclinations and at the same time practice the virtues that are the basis of an integrated personality: justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude.
It is there that the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, expounded in the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae, comes into play. Unlike many contemporary moral theologians, St. Thomas did not restrict moral theology to a study of problematic cases of morality; although this type of moral theology, as written by St. Alphonsus Liguori, is necessary and helpful for confessors. But Thomistic moral theology is really spiritual theology in the best sense of the word because it treats of the human person's journey back home to God. Moreover, it is eminently Christocentric, as St. Thomas points out:
"It is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given through faith in Christ, which is predominant in the law of the New Covenant . . . so before all else, the New Law is the very grace of the Holy Spirit, given to those who believe in Christ" ( Summa Theologiae, Ia IIae, q. 106, art. 1).
One's personal, responsible actions are the steps by which the Christian journeys back to God, and in order that one may make progress in this journey, God gives to the baptized Christian a supernatural principle of life, which is sanctifying grace, and the spiritual energies or powers which are the theological and moral virtues and also the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our interest is in the supernatural, infused virtues, which become operative and are perfected under the control of the person who possesses them. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, are not under our direct control; they operate only when we are properly disposed and when the Holy Spirit wills.
Growth in virtue, which is the positive aspect of asceticism, means working towards the integration of one's personality. What this means is that the Christian, who has received from God sanctifying grace and the infused, supernatural powers or energies, must actuate those energies by the repetition of virtuous actions.
In addition, the Christian who is serious about progress in the spiritual life will benefit beyond measure from following the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the necessity of practicing discursive meditation and of making the examination of conscience each day. Discursive meditation, first of all, is en exercise in which the individual looks at self in relation to a particular virtue, an event in the life of Christ, or some revealed truth. It comprises three essential acts: to think about one of the topics mentioned in order to understand its meaning;, then to apply that knowledge to one's own life, here and now; and finally, to resolve to do something positive in view of one's greater perfection. The examination of conscience, on the other hand, enables one to check one's progress or failure each day in order to insure a constant and determined effort to improve. It should be evident, therefore, why the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola have been and still are a most effective instrument for conversion and for continued progress in the practice of the virtues proper to one's state of life.
A quotation from Pascal's Pensées serves as a fitting conclusion to these reflections on the ascetical phase of the spiritual life:
"The Christian religion teaches men these two truths: that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature that makes them unworthy of God. It is equally important to men to know both of these truths, and it is equally dangerous for men to know God without knowing their own wretchedness, and to know their own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer, who can free them from it. The knowledge of only one of these truths gives rise either to the pride of philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer."