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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: March 1, 2018
By Deacon Matthew Glover
Chancellor for Canonical Affairs
We’re now well into Lent. No doubt most have already chosen what they’re giving up. And some have struggled through the first couple of Fridays with no meat (although, here in the South, it’s hard to say that dinners of all-you-can-eat fried catfish is much of a sacrifice). And so it’s a fitting time to dwell on one of the more forgotten Catholic practices: asceticism.
Many people associate asceticism with some mystical monks practicing painful corporal mortifications, undertaking extreme fasts and sleeping on hard surfaces. But asceticism, properly understood, is not only possible for everyone, but a necessary component at least on some level in order to grow in right relationship with God.
Asceticism comes from the Greek word “askein,” which literally means “to exercise or train,” especially in the context of athletic training. Athletic training has long been used as an analogy for the spiritual journey, and its roots are scriptural.
If a Christian presumes that her salvation is a slam dunk regardless of her lifestyle, then she ignores the clear coaching of St. Paul, who himself continued to drive and train his spiritual life in order that he might not be disqualified in the end.
St. Paul tells the Corinthians that he doesn’t take his salvation for granted, but instead trains his soul just as an athlete trains his body. He writes, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. … I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25, 27)
If an athlete takes it for granted that she will win, then she’s much more likely to lose or at least underperform. Similarly, if a Christian presumes that her salvation is a slam dunk regardless of her lifestyle, then she ignores the clear coaching of St. Paul, who himself continued to drive and train his spiritual life in order that he might not be disqualified in the end.
In short, asceticism keeps us from being lazy, slothful, gluttonous, self-righteous and presumptuous of our own holiness. It helps keep in check the concupiscence that inclines us toward sin. Certainly, it can at times be painful and difficult.
But that doesn’t mean it saps us of Christian joy, or that only dour-faced persons can be good Christians. As St. Theresa of Avila wrote, “a sad nun is a bad nun,” and she reportedly once prayed, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!”
So what kinds of ascetic practices can today’s everyday Catholic undertake? Some are doable for everyone: giving up foods that one enjoys or even a meal here or there; spending money on the poor rather than on whatever new outfit or gadgets one may “want” but not really “need;” exercising a bit more and playing on the smartphone a bit less; driving in prayerful silence; or small corporal mortifications such as wearing the wool scapular.
For the more involved ascetical practices, it’s essential that one seeks input from one’s pastor or spiritual director.
The point is not to compile a list of ascetical victories, like athletes counting wins vs. losses. Rather, asceticism should only be practiced with our eye on the eternal prize: a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living God. If our motivation is anything else, then our asceticism may lead us further away from God, not closer to him.
So, as this Lent progresses, let’s all take some time to examine more than just what we’ve given up or how to plan for meatless meals in the coming Fridays. Let’s ask ourselves how we can practice asceticism even after Lent has come and gone.
After all, since elite athletes train year-round for prizes that will fade, shouldn’t we Christians train year-round for the unfading prize of eternal life with God?