Christian asceticism (spiritual disciplines, self-denial): What’s up with that?


So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

In this second post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we come to the “inner logic” of asceticism. What is it about our experience as human beings that requires us to engage in “askesis,” which means “training,” in order to live well with and for God?

In the last post I reminded us of what we already know–that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

Now I want to add that this fact about us explains the behavioral strictures that modern American holiness and fundamentalist believers have insisted upon: no dancing, drinking, movies, and so forth. These have been misunderstood by critics as “legalism,” a term with Lutheran roots that means the attempt to earn God’s favor through rule-following (the sort of thing that Jesus scorned in the Pharisees). Rather, they have a singular purpose: to protect the passionate relationship between the believer and God. They are analogous to the man who casts his eyes downward when passing a beautiful woman or quits the pleasures of the bottle—for the love of his wife. For any worldly behavior that might, as Augustine warned, seduce the human heart into enjoying it as an end in itself (an honor reserved for God alone), may best be avoided altogether.

The “no-no’s” of these modern groups are only the latest iteration of the traditional Christian answer to this problem of the seductive nature of “the flesh”: asceticism. The root word askesis means “training.” The idea behind this important Christian idea was inherited from the very earliest days of the faith, and before even those days. It is rooted in classical philosophical understandings of the Platonists who saw all of material life in two ways: first as a reflection, although dim, of divine reality, in fact as copies, although poor and muddy, of divine forms, but also therefore, second, as distractions—as, for example, a robber would climb over a fence and throw a piece of meat to a pack of ravening dogs to distract them from his own juicier meat long enough to sprint through the yard and into the house to rob it.

As long as we are occupied by the lesser good, the Enemy of our souls has successfully distracted us from the greater good which is our created purpose. The watchdog’s purpose is to clamp his jaws down on robbers. Our purpose is to embrace God—in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  And the pleasures of the flesh distract us from that higher purpose. Therefore there needs to be a discipline of the flesh (of that distracting, juicy steak).

Hear Lewis: “[Y]ou and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice [the desire for something greater than what the material world can offer]; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” (Lewis, “Weight of Glory.”)

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