For most of my life, I’ve misunderstood ascetic practices as shallow, utilitarian forms of self denial.
For instance: fasting is many times associated with denying the body to strengthen the soul. This superstitious approach is too extravagant and detached from ordinary experience. We all know of ascetic practices that only deny the flesh in a superficial sense and result in a more vital and healthy body and spirit.
Exercise, good eating, regular sleep: all of these things and more are not that far from the reality we find in fasting and ascetic practices like abstaining from meat and giving up something for Lent.
All forms of ascetic practice must be life giving, even when they seem to be death giving. After all, the most radical forms of self-denial were practiced at Gethsemane and Golgotha. Not only the generic, symbolic Cross: more radically, death on the Cross shows the ascetic way of life, the way of love.
Christ died for life. His death was itself an act of extreme vitality.
It is not enough to understand what Lenten ascetics practices are for. I must try, fail, and try again to LIVE through Lent. The great ascetics did not deny themselves as much as they transcended the need and desire for that which they did not have. They were most alive when they were dying.
Their example, of course, was Christ.
The Christian embrace of suffering and sacrifice is not a way to become less vital, less alive, less embodied. No. It is not a simple, unnatural escape from the flesh or the body. Just the opposite: Christians have the potential to be alive in a wild, erotic way. A way that bears witness to and longs for the truth and beauty of a suicidally vital God. A God who did not spare anything to show his dark, glorious, and mysterious life through a love beyond love.
All holy men and women of God, Pray for us!