Asceticism in America

A friend of mine has been reading about the Cure d’Ars and commented that he didn’t think the Cure’s asceticism would be understood in our society.

Strange isn’t it, that people in or society are willing to work, sweat, fast and put themselves through considerable pain and embarrassment– (you think the clothes people wear to the gym are flattering?) in order to get a firmer tummy, nice butt or better pecs, but they would consider celibacy, fasting and prayer to be weird religious fanaticism.

Others in our society are willing to endure rounds of expensive and painful surgery to get a better set of breasts, plumper lips, or a youthful looking face, but they’d consider an hour’s silence, giving up meat once a week or abstaining from sexual relations because you’re practicing natural birth control to be strange and dangerous religious extremism.

This is not to mention the athletes in sports-crazy America. They put themselves on strict diets, do physical training to get into shape, establish practice regimes that test their limits of endurance and regularly risk their careers, family lives and serious physical injury for what? A few moments of glory and a plastic trophy? And they think religious people are insane?

The idea that one should make any sacrifice at all for one’s religion is almost dead within American Christianity. Religion is there, isn’t it, to make you happy, to make you feel better about yourself, to provide warm fellowship for you and your Christian chums, to reassure you that after a pain free victorious life in Jesus you will be on the express train to heaven and even more unimaginable happiness. Yes, American Christians do expect to make financial sacrifices as they tithe, but even then it is often seen as a form of investment. After all, “You can’t out give God. If you tithe regularly you will receive much more back in return and be even more prosperous.” Right?”

The idea that asceticism in any form should be part of one’s faith is lost on Protestants. This is because, once you are saved anything you do physically doesn’t matter anyway. You can’t earn your salvation, so why would you want to engage in asceticism? It’s true, that some non-Catholic forms of spirituality do put some premium on a mild form of asceticism. Some Protestants would endorse some low level fasting, but this is purely for utilitarian reasons. “Fasting,” the argument goes, “helps you concentrate when you are praying. It helps you to discipline the body and get focussed away from yourself and your stomach to God.”

All well and good, but the Catholic theology of asceticism is far more profound and mysterious. Why should we fast or engage in asceticism? Because by any suffering that we endure we are sharing in the cross of Christ and the glorious sacrifice of the martyrs. When we participate in asceticism we are not only disciplining our appetites and our bodies, we are cooperating with the grace of God to ‘complete the sufferings of Christ’ in the world. This is nothing we do of our own, and through our own power. Instead it is an application of God’s grace. It is a practical action in which what we do applies and ministers Christ’s ultimate sacrifice in the world for the redemption and salvation of the world.

This motivates and inspires me more and more as I come to understand and ponder more deeply the mystery of what I am doing in Christ as I celebrate the Mass each day. That sacrifice I offer brings Christ’s one full final sacrifice into the present moment. That sacrifice is linked with whatever small sacrifices of asceticism I might make in the world. That sacrifice fills and empowers whatever I might try in my halting way to do and say to complete Christ’s action of redemption in the world.

This sharing through sacrifice is not only active in and through asceticism. It is active in and through every action of love and sacrifice for the others with whom I live. For a Catholic who wants to be alive in the faith, every action. Every thought. Every choice becomes full of the grandeur of God.

Or else it becomes a dark, empty hole of everlasting darkness.

For the Catholic everything matters. Each action has an eternal consequence in a way that no other creed or belief can match.

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  • Interesting point that for other Christians, fasting and the like are a means to an end– to develop more self-discipline, a stronger prayer life, a closer walk with God, etc. They don’t seem to think fasting or abstinence have value in and of themselves, as a sharing in the sufferings of Christ and something pleasing to God.That may help explain why some very devoted Protestant Christians I know think the enclosed life of a cloistered nun or a Carthusian monk is useless. They do say they think prayer is valuable in and of itself. But I don’t think they really believe it, because if a monk devotes himself entirely to prayer and doesn’t do any tending the sick on the side, they think there’s no justification for such a life.

  • Thanks Father! I just want to point out that I feel that our Eastern brethren (both Catholic and Orthodox) put us to shame when it comes to ascesis. A six week Advent fast, an even more stringent Lenten fast? The fasting discipline in the Western church has been eviscerated. We could learn a lot from the “other lung” of the Church, how to recover a sense of asceticism. [The followers of other religions, too, fast seriously — obviously they don’t understand it the way Christians do, but they do take it seriously. I think this occurs across the board. It’s just us in the West — the Western church, as well as Western society, that seem to have lost sight of this important spiritual discipline.]

  • Anonymous

    We do need to hear more about ascetic practices in daily life, even if we don’t use that terminology. The Eastern Churches (Catholic as well as Orthodox) encourage the faithful to fast for several weeks twice a year, and several days two more times. Only in self-denial can we let go of ourselves, our wants and our impulses (the “passions” in Eastern thought). We fast and mortify ourselves not as ends, but as means to diminish the selfish desires and impulses, which are obstacles to God’s grace working in us. Then we can love others according to the beatitudes, as the Lord Himself showed us and gives us the grace to do.Jim Cole

  • All of this business about asceticism is self-indulgence: “Look at me, look at how pious I am.” The sports analogy is apt, because what you’re advocating is nothing more than an egocentric display of competitive piety. Spare me. Go have as many cheeseburgers as you want, then go feed the hungry and minister to the homeless. Christianity is about loving and helping the “least of these,” not engaging in the type of self-involved moral exhbiitionism you’re advocating.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Father! Great! Thank you! Wonderful homily. Blessings to you!

  • Geoff, one of the things I didn’t mention, but which should be understood about fasting is that anyone who does this openly is a Pharisee and hypocrite.The gospel tells us when we fast to wash our face and appear cheerful and to keep it a secret.You’re right that any asceticism which calls attention to itself is a form of pride.Did you read the whole post? The point of any asceticism is not self indulgence, but a form of sacrifice for others.

  • margaret

    Father, I hate to sorta disagree, but there is a time when fasting or abstaining from meat or whatever, has to be public. I am lucky enough to work with a number of observant Catholics, and sometimes our Friday abstinence is noticed and questioned. Surely, if we fast or abstain and it is noticed, it could be a witness to others? Not that we pull a long face over it (Lord knows, what the Catholic Church asks of us is not very difficult), but we do it and people do take note. I tend to think that it is a good thing, overall.

  • “The idea that asceticism in any form should be part of one’s faith is lost on Protestants. This is because, once you are saved anything you do physically doesn’t matter anyway.”Perhaps in your stream of Protestantism, but certainly not in mine. I have always been taught that regular fasting should be a part of my prayer life. Everything from short, weekend fasts up to 40 days or even more. To say that Protestants believe that nothing we do physically matters is plainly hyperbole. If Protestants really believed that, why would there be an emphasis on purity? Or the concerns about reading Harry Potter? Or dressing modestly? Or not watching very violent TV or listening to certain kinds of music?

  • fabulous post…

  • Ah Dwight. You’ve lost this debate I’m afraid.Your writing is at its best and most enlightened when you speak as a mature Catholic, someone who follows a loving Gospel. But your writing is at its weakest and is most unreasonable, when you allow those ol’ Protestant prejudices deep within you, surface. Sure, your Catholic blog fans get excited but we Prods just smile.Geoff and Elizabeth have countered your hyperbole with excellence this time. Step down from the ring, lick your wounds and go do some spiritual exercise. (I also know many Protestant ascetics who can help you in this area.)BlessingsJames

  • Fried Chicken Strips

    I dunno, I haven’t made the connection between fasting and prayer as a good thing. A full stomach is a distraction during prayer, but waiting for my body to cannibalize itself doesn’t sound like a good time for prayer either. When I fast during Lent, my mind is usually thinking about dinner. I tend to value sincerity in prayer. I ask myself if I mean what I pray, and do I understand what I am praying. Else, the words become empty routine and ritual rather than the grace and union with the Triune God their meant to be.A few comments on the original post:(1)Tithe because you love and support the mission of the Church. What I give is not contingent on what I receive. “Do not count the cost,” the Lord said. What goes for money goes for love. If someone hits you, turn the other cheek. If then this giving isn’t contingent on what you receive how much then do I give. Baby, it if doesn’t hurt, you haven’t given enough. The Catholic teaching isn’t 10%, but giving out of your substance not your excess.(2) I agree with Elizabeth; it is more accurate to argue Protestant theology emphasizes the intellectual over the physical than to claim the whole swarm of them as the red headed step children who can never do anything right. The Amish and the Mennonites practice ascetics, and are also children of the Reformation. I believe this line of argument angered our charismatic friend a few months ago, enough to write his lengthy and colorful post to us Catholics. Correction out of love father.

  • Hyperbole is used to make a point: Of course good Protestants practice forms of self denial and self discipline. Sometimes they put Catholics to shame with their zeal and austerity.My point was theological: they may practice all these things, but they don’t think they matter eternally because they repudiate the eternal efficacy of their good works.The profound questions for Protestants are these: if you practice asceticism, why do you do so? I expect they will say it is for a practical spiritual purpose of self discipline and a better prayer life, and that’s a laudable purpose indeed, but…duuh….that’s what I admitted in the original post.

  • mark

    Thank for that Fr. Longenecker, I’m reading it in my lunch hour and shoveling down a couple of ham sandwiched, now I feel like a guilt-ridden glutton and can’t face my apple. What’s more you have now made me aware that I am not in the habit of fasting so I expect another century or two in purgatory over and above that which I am to suffer already. I have to break open the emergency Plenary indulgence now that I was saving for the next visit of my mother-in-law, gee thanks. Only joshing, AD FIDEM REDEANT ANGLI

  • Palmetto Papist

    Protestants are often better than their theology and Catholic worse than theirs.

  • Well said PP

  • Elizabeth, I take your point that some Protestants do practice forms of self denial and self discipline. My question is–what do you think is accomplished by it?Do you believe that it is a mystical sharing in the sufferings of Christ which helps in the application of Christ’s saving work for the final redemption of your souls? Most Protestants I know deny that any good thing they do can contribute to that work of God.I’m glad some non-Catholics fast and pray. I just wonder what they think it accomplishes.I’m willing to be informed on this matter.

  • “I haven’t made the connection between fasting and prayer as a good thing.”Jesus made this connection during 37 days in the desert…and he wasn’t even a sinner.Oops, I think it was more like 42 days.

  • Re: “The point of any asceticism is not self indulgence, but a form of sacrifice for others.”Thanks, but I’ll have that cheeseburger and fries anyway, and try my best — in as quiet and undertstated way as possible — to spend a night or two breaking bread with the homeless each year, or donating blood, or quietly (hopefully anonymously) helping the occasional stranger in need of kindness. I’ll leave it to particpants in the Piety Games to starve themselves in some sort of unclear form of “sacrifice”? … What, if I don’t eat that cheeseburger and fries, the diner will send them straight to the hungry?Jesus rarely — maybe with the exception of those 40 days in the desert — said no to a good meal. He also succeeded at something I’ve tried and failed at many times: Turning water into wine! The Son of Man knew how to have a good time, too. And He was well-nourished to bring His message of boundless love into our broken world.

  • Oi, chicken wings. If I’m the ‘charismatic friend’ you are referring to, I would like to make the following theological statement: “Blah, blah, blah, blah, rasp.”Out of love, Abba.Blessingsjames

  • What “charismatic friend” who are we talking about? James is always welcome here. He’s a breath of fresh air. He’s always wrong, mind you, but a breath of fresh air all the same…:-)

  • I suppose the trouble when making comparisons upon catholic/protestant lines is often while the catholic position on a subject can be well documented and defined in the cathecism it is often challenging if not impossible to pin down what a comprehensive protestent worldview will be on a given subject simply based on the number of differing denominations and theologies. you are almost certain to hear a few groans of differing aggreement because you are not going to define everyone, it’s a bit of a scattershot in the direction of the lowest common denominator and a hope for the best. I agree with Fr Longnecker and his position but also wish to express the dificulty that can come with this kind of topic and try to explain to those protestancts that may be offended if they beleive they are being mischaracterized to explain their position and how it compares with modern “mainline protestant” theology (for lack of a better term).

  • Thursday makes a good point. It is unfair putting an austere and holy Mennonite into the same box with a wild eyed liberal Episcopalian.However, I wasn’t commenting so much on Protestant practice as Protestant beliefs, and for the most part, in theory at least, most Protestants hold to the basic Protestant line that our good works (while practical and useful in this life) are not eternally worthwhile.

  • fried chicken strips

    Father,I remembered reading this post in “Split Imminent” awhile back, and when Elizabeth made her comment here, I thought there was a connection. It was such an alarming post I thought you used the same hyperbole.”…Dwight, please believe me, we Evangelicals are Spirit-filled. Your constant sniping at us reminds me of a man who wants to marry, but can’t give up his mistress. Make up your mind.Blessings to you and all your contributors…”

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker,I do not believe that my suffering for Christ is redemptive for other people, in the sense that my suffering will atone for other people’s sins. I do believe that practicing fasting and asceticism has eternal results for myself and for others. It brings me closer to God, and thus makes me a better channel for His grace to the world. It makes me more like Christ, and therefore affects my rewards in heaven and my place here in earth. If I am closer to God, I will have a greater impact on the world and I will better complete the work God has for me. In general, I fast etc, to discipline my body and mind, to deepen my prayer life, to better pray for others and the world, for help and comfort in hard times, and to do something for God out of love.

  • Good explanation. Thanks Elizabeth.

  • Thank you Father!It is strange, isn’t it? I mean, I always feel embarrassed for those people in the gym. Why pursue good health and an active sex life? There’s simply no reward in it!

  • Jeron

    Very good post, Father. Thank you for this.