Lenten Asceticism

As most of you know, we are nearly two weeks into Lent, that forty day period that we set aside before Easter to prepare ourselves for the remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s an important season in the church calendar and should be an important time of preparation for all Christians. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

I personally think that this is a beautiful invitation into the Lenten season. I particularly like the aspect of self-denial that is expected of each believer during Lent. In the words of the Rule of Benedict: “Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance, yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times. And this will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.” Again, I think that these words are a beautiful exhortation to all believers to engage intentionally in ascetical practice during Lent. Given that “asceticism” is likely not a daily discipline for many of us, an explanation would be helpful.

Asceticism comes from the Greek ask?sis and literally means exercise, practice or training. In earliest Christianity, ask?sis could refer to the study of the Scriptures, bodily discipline and as a technical term for the monastic life. The most common use of the word was in reference to an austere or disciplined life. Such bodily discipline is not unique to Christianity, since it was also characteristic of early Buddhism and ancient Judaism. The Old Testament is greatly concerned with bodily actions, observing ascetical practices as diverse as fasting, abstaining permanently from certain foods, not touching a woman in her menses, requiring that a person perform purification rites after sexual intercourse, adopting sexual continence and wearing coarse garments. Furthermore, the Essenes, a Jewish communal group, were rooted in the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and committed to fulfilling its precepts by incorporating many ascetic practices into their way of life. These practices included celibacy, a simple life free of material possessions, temperance in food and drink, simplicity of dress, reserve in speech, desert separatism and strict rules of ritual purity.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy also advocated asceticism. The Stoics are the most well-known of the ancient schools of philosophy for adopting ascetic tendencies. They believed that humankind was perfectible in its earthly existence, thus creating the need to live ascetically. The task of human beings, for Stoics, was to cultivate their own soul so that they could achieve complete harmony between what they desired and sought after and what right reason set down. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “By remembering, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be content with everything that happens. And inasmuch as I am in a manner intimately related to the parts which are of the same kind with myself, I shall do nothing unsocial, but I shall rather direct myself to the things which are of the same kind with myself, and I shall turn an my efforts to the common interest, and divert them from the contrary. Now, if these things are done so, life must flow on happily” (10.6). The goal, therefore, of Stoicism is apatheia, that is, moving beyond those powers (such as anger) that affect one’s behavior and disposition. In part, this was accomplished through various types of asceticism.

From its earliest history, Christianity also practiced a number of forms of asceticism, due, at least in part, to its Judaic heritage and the influence of Greek and Roman philosophy. Already in the New Testament literature a paradigm for asceticism is presented in the person of John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, wore camel’s hair clothing, ate locusts and honey and fasted with his disciples (Mark 1:6; 2:18). Jesus himself established a firm foundation for the ascetical lifestyle when he admonished his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). As well, Jesus often fasted and seemed to care little for accumulating material possessions. Soon after Jesus’ earthly ministry, there was a dispute between those Jews converted to Christianity and the Hellenized Christians. The core of this dispute centered upon the need for non-Jews to receive circumcision, on the eating of clean or unclean foods and on food sacrificed to idols (cf. Acts 15:1-21). Though the apostle Paul urged that all food may legitimately be eaten by Christians, he also fasted (Acts 14:23) and advocated, for some, celibacy (1 Cor. 7:25-40) together with “spiritual marriage,” a term for the practice of female Christian ascetics who lived with men, lay and ordained, where both parties took a vow of celibacy. It appears, then, that in addition to “normative” ascetical practices, such as fasting, celibacy and avoidance of material possessions, perhaps as early as the first century the Christian churches were institutionalizing practices of asceticism.

This being the case and all things considered, it would be good today if more Christians took ascetical practice seriously, as least making an effort during seasons such as Lent. It appears clear that it was a common practice both in the biblical tradition and in non-biblical history. In both cases this sets a good precedent for us today and certainly God will not be displeased if we make a holy Lent, assisted by intentional ascetical living. May God give us the resolve to take up our cross, deny ourselves and walk in the manner that Jesus walked.


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