Lent: How Could Asceticism Be Helpful to Me?
Catholics who grew up in the 50′s and 60′s and before often heard: “Offer it up!” We might have blown that idea off but we knew it had a deeper meaning. The heart of the maxim was closeness to the person of Christ – with a being of unconditional love and compassion. No one wants to just torture oneself to rack up a extra “Brownie Points” with God. But, being with Christ and the poor is another thing. Even minor deprivation reminds us of how blessed and addicted we are. We are all interconnected, in solidarity with every living thing. Knowing we are blessed and not complaining over the inconveniences of life makes us more compassionate. Being grateful can’t help but contribute to a holier world.
Some people seek ways to actively promote their spiritual growth and more freedom from attachments by simplifying their lives or cultivating an awareness of what is controlling them One term for this is “asceticism.”
“Asceticism” comes from the Greek words “Ascetikos” and “Askein” which refer to exercise. It does not have anything to do with inflicting pain or enduring something just to prove that one is committed or is strong. The point of asceticism is to learn to identify one’s unhelpful attachments or addictions and to then learn ways to not have these rule us – to strengthen our ability to make conscious choices. So, for example, when I eat I can observe what I want to eat the most and then see if that kind of food is good for me. It is amazing how often or quickly we can see what is in charge of our lives. I can at times feel an over whelming need to eat something to tamp down upsetting feelings.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola advised retreatants doing the retreat called the Spiritual Exercises to observe their attachment to things that led to unhappiness in their lives in general through the vehicle of observing their desires at a meal. He pointed out that we usually want what he called “delicacies” rather than the healthier staple foods of the day (curly fries with cheese sauce as opposed to chicken and salad?) Our desire can be fierce. He also pointed out that at meals we may not be interested in being present to the other people. We may converse but we may not be listening or really care what the other is expressing. All of this is a potential goldmine for growth. If we desire to know ourselves and to be of service to the world then we can consciously reflect on our attachments, desires and feelings. In the Christian context, freedom from denial and negative patterns is not achieved by sheer exercise of one’s will. Deciding to stop doing something does not necessarily change one’s interior life. So authentic growth is not just on the surface. Authentic growth in the Christian context is about moving away from something negative because one is moving towards something positive. In technical terms asceticism cannot be separated from mysticism (meant as religious experience). So, knowledge of what is going on at the microcosm of the dinner table which might be very self-centered or destructive can be transformed for even the most helplessly addicted foodaholic into a victory of freedom. That freedom though will be effected for the Christian by an encounter with the Sacred – a very positive experience of unconditional love.
Okay, but how does one have these experiences?! (Stay tuned for more!)