Asceticism: True and False

It might surprise you to know that there is a lot of false asceticism about. All that flesh-hating, afraid-of-the-body nonsense peddled by those who are neither ascetic themselves nor wish anyone else to be is seriously misleading. It is behind much of our simplistic ‘fat-is-bad, thin-is-good’, thinking. It makes people miserable when they ought to be happy and, because it is based on a false premise, prevents people from realising that they never can be happy while they subscribe to a lie.

True asceticism has nothing whatever to do with punishment, but everything to do with training and discipline. The Greek origins of the word are enough to show that (askesis means practice, athletic training). It is not to be identified with austerity, although a certain restraint is necessary since what we aim at is mastery over our appetites and any bad habits they may have led us into. St Jerome was very clear-eyed about this, saying that fasting, for example, should not be taken to excess as it is only a means to an end. It is a help towards attaining moral perfection, but it is not perfection itself. We could go further and say that fasting taken to excess is a sin, because it is a misuse of material goods and a profanation of the body, leading to pride, hardness of heart and a host of other evils.

Asceticism is always ethical, both in origin and in scope. There is nothing mystical about it, although some modern writers seem to confuse the two. Nor is there anything sad or heavy about it. Like all exercise, it is meant to invigorate, only for Christians it is a spiritual invigoration that we seek.

The chief asceticisms of the Rule of St Benedict are obedience and the common life, in which the use of time, speech, material goods, food and drink are all regulated. They are disciplines aimed at freeing the monk or nun from anything that might hold them back on the way to God. Self-will, self-indulgence, all the many forms of selfishness we prefer not to admit to, are encouraged by soft living and having no checks on what one says or does. (You do not have to be a moral theologian to work that out — just look at the gossip columns of the Mail Online, for instance, and you can see how sad and empty are the lives of many people who judge their worth by what they own and who walk away from relationships when the going gets tough.) But the point to note about the Benedictine asceticisms is that none is carried to excess. They are part of our training in the spiritual life and, as such, the renunciations they involve should be joyful. Benedict makes that very clear when he writes about Lent and our offering things up gladly, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I myself think asceticism began to go wrong when people began to go wrong about religion, mistaking misery for holiness and punishment for penance. Food, instead of being blessed, shared and enjoyed, became a temptation; wine, instead of being a source gladness of heart, became sinful; and once things become temptations and are regarded as sinful, we get them all wrong, too. Maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic if we hadn’t decided that food is innately sinful and therefore curiously desirable; maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about our drinking habits if we hadn’t let them run out of control because we associate the pleasures of wine with guilt; maybe we wouldn’t have so many broken marriages if we hadn’t got so confused about love and sex. I could go on, but I might end up indulging in a grumble, if not a rant.

My suggested remedy for many of the social ills that assail us is for the Churches to rethink asceticism and, instead of presenting much of our ethical and moral behaviour as a series of negatives, try to regain something the early Church understood much better. We are runners in a race towards heaven, and we need to get into training. In other words, we need to become true ascetics. The world has more than enough of the fake and phoney kind.

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Compassion

Compassion is a quality we recognize in others but are hard put to explain. It is more than sympathy (literally, feeling with), it is actually suffering with another. It is just as well that compassion comes as a gift, because I don’t think any of us would be brave enough to ask for it if we really thought what it means. There’s nothing warm and cuddly about compassion, although when we are on the receiving end, we do feel bundled up in love and warmth. Why not spend a few minutes today thinking about the occasions when you’ve experienced compassion from others and give thanks for them. Grace grows in proportion to gratitude, we are told. We might even become compassionate ourselves.

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Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

I’ve written a lot about this feast in previous years but realise I’d never admitted, until recently, that the often syrupy form it takes in some parishes was always a barrier to my appreciation of its theology and, indeed, historicity (it was clearly a pre-Reformation devotion at Netley, which was impeccably Cistercian). I suspect others feel the same. The clue to overcoming this will be found, as so often, in the preface for the feast and its reference to the piercing of Christ’s side with a lance as he hung on the cross, and the streams of grace and mercy which flowed from the wound.

Videos and television may have accustomed us to the sight of gore. Blood flowing from a wound may no longer have the power to shock. But for a Christian, the thought of God’s Son shedding his blood for us is truly awful. (Interesting: I originally wrote ‘bleeding for us’ but thought the more conventional phrase might be less offensive . . .) The blood of Christ washes us clean of sin, nourishes us in the Eucharist and restores us to union with God. Christ’s heart pulses eternally with that redemptive blood. The feast of the Sacred Heart, therefore, challenges us with a love so complete, so unremitting, that we are forced to choose: will we accept that love, or reject it? One of the wisest things ever said to me was to look in the eyes of a crucifix and say, if I dared, that I didn’t give a damn. One might do the same with an image of the Sacred Heart. Who could possibly be indifferent?

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Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?

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Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

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The Silence of Holy Week

This is a week when words buckle under the strain of meaning. Already yesterday’s hosannas are forgotten. We are left with the dust and anonymous noise of the city streets, the quiet plotting taking place in private rooms. We are moving inexorably forward to the Lord’s Passion. The sense of looming menace increases hour by hour.

These first days of Holy Week are very precious. They are a time for silence and reflection. One of the ways in which we prepare in community is by reading the Last Discourse in John’s Gospel before Compline. As the words echo through the darkness of the oratory, we enter into our own darkness and know our need of a Saviour. Such knowledge does not cast down, because to know our need of God is also to know that he has bowed down to meet it, that throughout the terrible events of this Week we are held by a Love that is infinite and eternal.

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Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.

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Smile Jesus’ Love Through

A few days spent roaming about on behalf of the monastery may have addled my wits, or maybe I’m just getting sentimental (not a quality usually associated with me), but I woke up this morning thinking about smiles, the kind that use 22 muscles on the human face, or whatever.

Smiles communicate so much and yet so little. We have a whole vocabulary to suggest their various shades of meaning, from appeasing through supercilious to warm or even zany. Smiles which don’t reach the eyes or are inconsistent with the words being spoken trouble us greatly. By contrast, a smile from someone we love is treasured in the memory. Sometimes the smiles of strangers are, too. I remember one hot summer’s evening long ago when I was working at the Bodleian and thanked a very tired-looking librarian for the book she had just got me: the brilliance of her smile has remained with me as a reminder that even a simple ‘thank you’ can be just what someone needs to hear — or maybe the smile was just what I needed to receive.

You can’t force a smile. Those gruesome photographs splattered all over the web showing faces with hugely improbable smiles are testimony to that. A smile has to start from the inside and work its way out. ‘Smiling through’ isn’t an idle phrase, for use only in hard times. If eyes are the mirror of the soul, surely a smile is too? So, please don’t start a National Smile Day (there probably already is one); please don’t start contorting your face into a huge rictus every time you meet someone; just spend some time ensuring that what is inside is worth displaying. That is more challenging than may appear, and certainly not likely to appeal to sentimentalists. ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’, no. Smile Jesus’ love through, yes.

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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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