Asceticism (Theological Aspect)
ASCETICISM (THEOLOGICAL ASPECT)
For the Christian, asceticism is an aspect of the following of Christ, the price that must be paid daily for increasing assimilation to Christ. Certainly, asceticism is not itself the aim and substance of the following of Christ but only a means thereto, an expression for resoluteness of will. Asceticism means conscious self-control and systematic exercise of the Christian life.
Eschatological View. Asceticism is not merely an exercise of self-mastery or a struggle against the passions; neither is it a mere subjection of the body to the spirit. Granted, the struggle is against human weakness and instability; yet when the Scriptures speak of the war against "the flesh" (σάρξ) they do not mean against bodiliness, but against the existential condition of fallen man, proud and self-centered. Implied in this are all the forces of perdition: original sin, the burden of personal sins for which one is still insufficiently repentant and for which he has not yet sufficiently atoned, the social milieu formed by one's sins and the sins of others that tends to draw one downward, and the fallen angels, who exercise their powers in the world. "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high. Therefore take up the armor of God…" (Ephesians 6.12–18). On the opposite side stand Christ and the community of saints.
When Christian asceticism is considered thus at the level of the history of salvation and the sacred-social order, it is clear that the important thing should not be a rigidly patterned routine. Asceticism must rather be—and this above all—true to life, suited to the necessities and contingencies of the battle. The Apostle admonishes us to this effect when he says, "Therein be vigilant in all perseverance" (Eph 6.18). Vigilance is one of the typical Christian eschatological virtues. When Paul claims that "he chastises his body" he actually refers to the notion taken from boxing jargon ([symbol omitted]ποπιάειν), to strike decisively at the right moment. The context makes this still clearer: "I, therefore, so run as not without a purpose; I so fight as not beating the air…" (1 Cor 9.26–27). Here the chief enemy is not the inertia of the body but pride of spirit and ambition, which are responsible for the disorder of the passions. The driving power of the passions ought not be weakened, but must be systematically guided toward the good—above all through attention to purity of motive.
Asceticism within the Order of Love. Asceticism must help to overcome all that stands in the way of fulfilling the chief commandment: love of God and love of neighbor. From this point of view it is likewise clear that Catholic moral theology—no less than evangelical theology—must reject that form of asceticism that is chosen for motives of vainglory. Asceticism ought never be practiced at the expense of service to the kingdom of God and to one's neighbor; for the central notion of Christian morality is not self-perfection—definitely not self-perfection conceived egoistically—but true fulfillment of the general and particular call received from God. An asceticism that is true to life is thus a conscious exercise of service. In case of doubt, mere exercise must yield to the service of love. Augustine says of the virtue of temperance that "discipline and moderation is that love which keeps itself unsullied and undiminished for God" (De Moribus Ecclesiæ Catholicæ et de Moribus Manichæorum Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 32:1322). This is true also of asceticism, which is allied with the Christian virtue of temperance.
Legal Prescription as Secondary. A Catholic understanding of asceticism ought not to lay emphasis one sidedly on legally prescribed action, as if, for example, the purely external fulfillment of abstaining from meat on Friday implied ascetical perfection. The intent of the law is rather education to genuine abstinence, indeed likewise to humble obedience through which pride is put in check. More important than the exact fulfillment of an act positively prescribed by the Church is the fulfillment of the intent of the law. Still more important—and this is the ultimate purpose of the Church—is the ever-ready submission to every renunciation and sacrifice imposed by divine providence (the best school of suffering) and demanded by the love of neighbor.
For the most part, asceticism is a "work of supererogation." Actually, that implies no arbitrary self-righteousness. It means only that most forms and exercises of asceticism are not universal legal impositions to which all can and should conform. It implies a call suited to the situation, a call of service for the kingdom of God and for neighbor, a call that goes beyond the legal obligations affecting all men. It is a responsive fulfillment of the call of grace. Christian asceticism is distinguished from most non-Christian forms precisely by this humble openness for the καιρός for each individual opportunity with its offer of grace.
Asceticism as a Universal Requirement. Asceticism is not a concern peculiar to the monastic state. It belongs to the Christian living in the midst of the world as well as to the monk, though the forms and emphases differ. The monks—sometimes simply called ascetics—should bear witness through their state and their example to the fact that "this world as we see it is passing away" (1 Cor 7.32). Yet if the entire people of God (and especially the laity living in the midst of the world) must attempt that brave encounter with the world of which Vatican II speaks in the schema On the Church and the World Today, then the spirit of evangelical poverty, i.e., renunciation of the egoistic desire to possess and to rule, is an absolute prerequisite. The Christian who is aware of the groaning of creation, of its longing to partake more and more in the blessed freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8.19–23), must follow this admonition: "… it remains that … those who use this world [be] as though not using it, for this world as we see it is passing away" (1 Cor 7.29–31). Without a definite, though flexible, measure of self-control, discipline and systematic struggle, the Christian cannot attain to this freedom.
Asceticism: A Way of the Joyful to Joy. Christian asceticism must be ultimately understood in terms of the paschal mystery. It is an affirmation of the cross as the path to resurrection. The ability to bear the cross, of which asceticism is indeed only one aspect, comes from the joy of being redeemed. "Joy in the Lord is your strength" (Neh 8.10): this is true also with regard to asceticism. The aim of the exercise that at times is found painful is a purified love of God, of neighbor, and of the whole of creation. But that also means an increase of joy.
Bibliography: Christian Asceticism and Modern Man, tr. w. mitchell and the carisbrooke dominicans (New York 1955). r. egenter, Die Aszese des Christen in der Welt (Ettal 1956). h. fichtenau, Askese und Laster in der Anschauung des Mittelalters (Vienna 1948). b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961–) 1:528–562. h. e. hengstenberg, Christliche Askese (Regensburg 1936). j. lindworsky, The Psychology of Asceticism, tr. e. a. heiring (London 1936). h. schmidt, Organische Aszese (6th ed. Paderborn 1952).