Asceticism is a practice that has been frequently misunderstood and misapplied. It may conjure up images in the imagination of an emaciated holy person flogging themselves in some twisted act of penance. But this kind of extreme, self-hating masochism does not represent healthy Christian asceticism. It is truly unfortunate that these sorts of disturbing practices have often come to define what Christian asceticism involves. Despite these misconceptions, “asceticism” is worth recovering, not simply in our language, but even more importantly in the life and practice of Christian discipleship. Discipleship inevitably stagnates and stunts without it.
The truth is that healthy asceticism does involve practicing forms of self-discipline and abstinence. But this is only one side of the equation. There is another side to the practice as well, which is in fact the point of it all. Healthy Christian asceticism involves deliberately practicing forms of self-discipline and abstinence for the sake of knowing and pursuing God more wholeheartedly. This is the essential purpose of Christian asceticism. It would be a mistake to think that Christian asceticism is primarily concerned with disciplines and abstinence. As helpful as these practices may be, at best they are only means to an end—the end being a stronger, more life-giving relationship with God in Christ.
Christian asceticism, properly practiced, does not make the practitioner more irritable or arrogant or gloomy. These are not qualities of a mature ascetic. These are signs that the ascetic may in fact be harbouring secret jealousies or some unresolved sense of superiority that subtly leaks out through their behaviour and demeanour. These are signs that something is being done wrong. The process of becoming detached from one’s most cherished attachments can indeed be accompanied by experiences of struggle and even suffering. But such experiences are temporary if the ascetic is travelling towards the right destination. Indeed, in the Christian life, experiences of grief and loss are actually part of the journey towards personal liberation and greater intimacy with God. They are part of fully participating in Christ’s journey of death and resurrection.
Proper Christian asceticism then ultimately produces joy and gratitude and peace and life. It produces deep security and contentment. It produces inward and outward strength in the mature ascetic, because they know who they are and what they are living for at a profound level. In other words, by knowing and pursuing God wholeheartedly, the mature Christian ascetic comes to deeply know their own identity and vocation. To make practicing forms of self-discipline or abstinence the main end and focus is to miss the whole point of Christian ascetical living.
Asceticism is confusing to our present-day culture. It is a counter-cultural affair. Words like “discipline” and “abstinence” rarely have positive meanings in our contemporary vocabulary. Ascetical practice tends to go against the comsumer-capitalist orthodoxy that so often influences our attitudes and desires. It goes against our greed for every possible possession and indulgence and experience. Such unrestrained greediness is often responsible for creating that constant inner sense of restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction, which has become so commonplace in our time. Today we have become so accustomed to this sense that we hardly even notice its presence. It is the air we breathe. Instead of satisfying our appetites, greed only enflames them. Left unchecked, our passions can become so unrelenting and disordered that they turn into a source of misery. Herein lies some of the wisdom of proper ascetical practice for today: part of its purpose is to reorder and refocus our often disordered and dysfunctional desires.
In reality, every choice has a negative side (what we are giving up) and a positive side (what we are gaining). Christian asceticism is a highly practical activity, an exercise where spirituality meets everyday decisions. In a sense, every choice is an ascetical act: we necessarily deny ourselves some things in order to gain something. Because, despite the promises of certain illusions, we cannot have everything. Whenever we say “yes” to one thing, we are simultaneously saying “no” to countless other things. And we are all limited individuals who are forced to make choices in life, whether we like it or not. Christian asceticism is about intentionally prioritizing and making space for God in one’s life. It is about choosing God. And it is much more about gaining God than it is about giving up whatever else. Indeed, for the mature ascetic, giving up lesser things becomes a joy for the sake of knowing God and the divine peace which surpasses understanding.