Ordeals and austerities have a place in most religious traditions. They serve a variety of purposes: strengthening, purifying, humbling, initiating. The two are not the same though, and don’t necessarily serve the same purposes.
Ordeals are trials that one must go through. I see them as one time occurences. One can prepare for them, or sometimes an ordeal is upon us before we realize it. Ordeals take us into a place where we face our fears. This can be part of an initiation process or can be part of pledging an oath to a god or group.* Usually ordeals have a physical component to them, but they don’t have to. What is an ordeal for one, will not be testing for another. John Beckett says that ordeals are designed to test and transform, for specific purposes.
Austerities are practices that are hard, repeated, generating heat (tapas in the Hindu tradition), and are practiced as devotions and/or as spiritual exercises. This can be fasting, going vegetarian, meditating in cold water, holding all night vigils, regular yoga practice (or other forms of exercise), and so on. Again, what is austere for one might not be austere for another.
I learned about fasting, and gained a healthy appreciation for austerities, in my years worshiping with the Eastern Orthodox Church. They have a serious fasting tradition. They fast for much of the year, going vegan and then some. I learned to set myself up for success, to be not so strict that I failed constantly and forgot the purpose of the act. I learned that in our culture of plenty, it is good to know hunger. I also learned that it wasn’t just about “giving stuff up.” It was about changing my mindset so that I was more focused on my spiritual practices and had greater clarity in mind, body, and spirit.
Both austerities and ordeals are consciousness shifting. They are designed to induce trance states and to change how we perceive our world around us. For some this involves degrees of pain. There is a strong BDSM current in Pagan paths of ordeals. That’s not my bag, so I can’t speak to that current. I do know that consent is important. Suffering at the hands of others, if one has not consented, is not an ordeal, it is abuse.
I feel strongly that ordeals and austerities are not about suffering per se (though that might be involved), and suffering is never redemptive. If some one in a power-over position suggests that continuing to suffer is good for you, please rethink that relationship. Too many women are told that their suffering in abusive relationships is appropriate and part of “God’s plan.” I think of trans* teens told to shut up and change, that their suffering will make them stronger. These are not the kinds of ordeals I’m talking about. Sure, those experiences may make some one stronger down the road, but suffering in and of itself is not holy or redemptive. There is enough suffering in this world and I don’t see any more enlightenment for all of it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that what is an ordeal for one might not be an ordeal for another. Same with austerities. For some one in chronic pain, the daily walk about the block might be something lovingly endured in an effort to strengthen his body for spiritual work. For others, their gods might be calling them to train for an ultra-marathon.
I have found that as I practice austerities and ordeals I become much more compassionate toward others. Yes, I gain pride in my growing a strong will, but it is a pride I know others can experience too. Strength of will and spirit are good things and are available to all. If my efforts do no help me to be more compassionate then I think I am doing it wrong.
Raven Kaldera, some one who has written extensively on ordeals, particularly in a BDSM setting, has this to say about ordeals:
The most important thing to remember with ordeal-work is that it is meant to take you beyond your ego, not simply fluff it up. While some ordeals can give you increased confidence in yourself and your power, if there wasn’t a point somewhere in it that was completely humbling, you didn’t do it right.
I am in the middle of an ordeal right now. I am on a severe food restriction diet for what seems to be a minor health issue. Turns out there’s nothing minor about it, and “the cure is worse than the disease.” With this diet comes days of detox that blindside me and keep me bedridden. Yesterday was particularly bad, keeping me in so much pain that I laid on my bed and cried. What I thought would be a month long austerity has turned out to be a ordeal: physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
I have been offering this ordeal up to my gods. I knew that fasting like this would clean me out, physically. As a devotee of Shiva and recently coming into a close relationship with one of his manifestations, it is no surprise to me that I am undergoing this process, at this time. I did not realize that it would be an ordeal. But it is, and I will not falter. I offer it up, approaching this as an act of kala.**
What ever you are going through, I offer my respect and support. May you come through it purified, stronger and more compassionate.
*These aren’t the same thing in my book. An initiation, in my mind, confers a relationship between a god or spirit (or more than one). Iinitiating into a group is joining, not necessarily anything related to one’s spiritual make up.
**Feri rite of purification