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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The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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