Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD The Christian Tradition of Asceticism

The Christian Tradition of Asceticism

[Fr Ignacio Ellacuria SJ, the president of Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA), was murdered by members of the Salvadoran army in San Salvador on November 16 1989, together with two other Jesuit scholars – Fr Segundo Montes SJ and Fr Ignacio Martín-Baró SJ – three university colleagues and two employees. Not long before his death, Fr Ignacio spoke to Christians of the first world:] I want you to set your eyes and your hearts on these peoples who are suffering so much some from poverty and hunger, others from oppression and repression. Then (since I am a jesuit) standing before this people thus crucified you must repeat St Ignatius’ examination from the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. Ask yourselves: what have I done to crucify them? What do I do to uncrucify them? What must I do for this people to rise again? [1]

If you would come after me you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. For if you would save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake and the gospel’s you will save it. For what does it profit you, to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? For what can you give in return for your life?[2]

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.[3]

The human ground of spiritual praxis

When we see ballet dancers glide across the stage, although it might appear effortless in its grace, we would not dare suggest to those ballet dancers that there is no effort, even pain, underlying what they do. Ballet dancers make enormous sacrifices in training their minds and bodies. They go through hours of repetition and extremely demanding exercises so that those moments of freedom and grace might be experienced. The ballet dancer’s body is trained for freedom and a particular kind of knowledge. The well-trained and talented ballet dancer knows in and through the body where and how to move and he or she has the freedom to actually move in that way.

This demands a process we call discipline. The English word discipline has its roots in the Latin word discipulus meaning disciple. Discipline, in the most strict and best sense of the word means to make a disciple of. Thus, the ballet dancer makes disciples of the inherent talent, the muscles, tendons and joints, the mind and feelings etc, so there is an integration and coherence as all the human energies of the organism
combine for a purpose. This begets the physical grace and freedom we love to watch.

Can it be otherwise? People who excel in any field of human endeavour do this. They make disciples of their talents. This requires practice and that practice can be very demanding at times. Natural talent is not enough. In fact, if they lack the discipline and commitment that is required, the naturally talented are soon surpassed by the less talented who have a much stronger discipline and commitment.

There is something about this training and discipline that is necessary to release the potential of the person. It is as if we remain bound, the potential imprisoned, until or unless we act in a manner that gathers our talents and focuses the energy in a particularly concentrated sort of way.

The actions we take in this process of training and discipline may be considered as of two kinds:

“Positive” thus, we stretch or strengthen certain muscles, and deliberately do certain things to increase the facility we seek, we choose to rest and we eat certain foods etc;

“Negative” thus, we avoid certain foods, we decline certain invitations that might cut across our training, we do not over-reach ourselves etc.

The results of these actions, if well conceived and if there is some basic talent there, is twofold:

“Knowledge” in our very beings, especially in our bodies, we come to know what must be done, we acquire a knowledge beyond the merely rational;

“Freedom” we are able to act on that knowledge and achieve the desired ends in accord with our talents and capabilities.

It to watch the grace of the ballet dancer and the fluidity of the gymnast, the speed of the runner and the strength of the weight-lifter.

And it is not only the physical endeavours that call for this kind of commitment, training and discipline. A similar effort is required of the emotions and the mind. They do not automatically achieve their best possibilities.
We must practise and make disciples of these faculties.

Parents and educators know too, that a similar effort is required for the release of our best moral possibilities. For example, children without good discipline will typically tend to lack the sensitivity and capacity to behave in morally appropriate ways. They will lack both “moral knowledge” and “moral freedom”.

Should we be surprised to find these same laws apply also to the world of the spirit? There is a particular “spiritual knowledge” and “spiritual freedom” that can only be acquired by good practice and experience. Some form of well-directed training is essential to enable us to move towards any substantial fulfilment of our be they physical, emotional, intellectual, moral or spiritual.

Grace is at the heart of this process in each instance. Paradoxically, control and release coincide in a beautiful harmony. And, we might add, not without some pain.

Not surprisingly, all the great religious traditions recognize this. All the major world religions have some practices, even integrated ways of living the whole of life, that are designed to promote deep knowledge and set
one free for greater openness to the Transcendent.

Typically, the efforts of training and discipline in the religious traditions focus broadly on three areas where our best possibilities are likely to be obstructed:

Firstly, freedom from physical compulsions relating to bodily appetites (notably, concerning food, drink, sleep and sex), so that there is a growing knowledge in and through the body of what matters and a bodily freedom in service of deeper things;

Secondly, freedom from psychological compulsions (notably, anxiety/fear and the consequent desire to control, which can lead us, in turn, to be pre-occupied with gathering power through possessions, status, role,
knowledge etc.) so that there is a growing knowledge deep in our psyches and a psychological freedom in service of deeper things;

Thirdly, freedom from spiritual compulsions (notably, pride which can lead us to make idols of ourselves, our opinions, our organisation, etc) so that there is growing spiritual knowledge and spiritual freedom in service of
our openness to the divine.

These three are generally fostered under the direction of a wise guide, knowledgeable in the teachings and practices of that tradition, to whom one is committed in obedience.

The roots of Christian asceticism

The English word asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis meaning exercise or practice. The word does not find its ways into Christian usage until Clement of Alexandria (150-215) but the meaning is already in the Jewish Scriptures.[4] The Book of Proverbs for example, notes:

A person without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”[5]

This echoes contemporary Greek usage[6] and is, if you like, common sense. And Christian assumes God’s action in the world for us, and the Covenant of Love. That is the starting point for understanding anything and everything about human beings. In that context Christian asceticism “is never a condemnation but a preference.”[7] It is not so much a withdrawal or denial but an approach and an affirmation. Christian asceticism is about choices and behaviours that enhance our availability for the transforming and liberating action of God in Christ, the
fulfillment of the Covenant of Love.

Before we look specifically at the Gospel, it is as well to recall the roots of asceticism in the Jewish Scriptures. We can consider asceticism in its broadest sense, as any action or behaviour we choose in order to set us free for God’s loving intimacy.

Those human choices and behaviours spring from God’s initial choice and behaviour. They may be chosen and executed by the individual and/or part or all of the community.[8] Having tasted the liberating love of God,
having heard the invitation to Covenant, the person then chooses and acts accordingly. Thus:

Abraham and Sarah hear the call of God and are prepared to leave their tribe and homeland.[9]

In order for God to set them free in a Covenant of Love, the people had to abandon their life in Egypt and go into the desert where God could speak to their hearts.[10]

The people had to relinquish old values and espouse new ones.[11]

The Prophets are raised up to keep the people faithful to this work, to help them to remember and re-commit themselves, again and again. The Prophets are called from the midst the people and they must leave all else for the sake of God’s mission.[12] They must make radical choices in order to come to know and to be free for the deeper possibilities.

The people at large must also do some things to facilitate their freedom for the Covenant. Initially the only fast day enjoined by the Law was the Day of Atonement,[13] four more days were introduced into the Jewish calendar during the Babylonian Exile to commemorate disasters in the history of the people.[14] Extraordinary general fasts were also ordered from time to time, when there was some calamity or extreme threat.[15] The fasting often included, together with abstention from food and drink, avoiding physical pleasures such as bathing, anointing and sexual intercourse. It also might involve donning penitential garments, sprinkling the
head with dust and ashes and performing acts of self-humiliation.[16]

Closer to the time of Jesus, there were strict who committed themselves to a rigorous lifestyle with the intention of readying themselves for the coming of the Messiah. In the 4th century, Eusebius, the Church historian, spoke of these Jewish communities quite explicitly as the forerunners of the Christian ascetical movement which was blossoming in his own day.

The Gospels and Christian asceticism

Authentic Christian asceticism – an asceticism thoroughly grounded in the person and teaching of Jesus as presented in the Gospels – bears only a superficial resemblance to the kind of self-mastery one might, for example, have found among the Stoics. N T Wright puts us in the picture in his typically lucid style:

“Jesus’ characteristic behaviour spoke as many volumes as his characteristic teaching. Wherever he went, there was a party. After all, if God is becoming King at last, who wouldn’t want to celebrate? But he celebrated with all the wrong people. He went into low dives and back alleys. He knocked back the wine with the shady and disreputable. He allowed women of the street to come and fawn over him. And all the time he seemed to be indicating that, as far as he was concerned, they were in the process of being welcomed into the new day that was dawning, the day of God’s becoming King. That was the significance of his remarkable healings (which, incidentally, most serious scholars today are prepared to admit as historical).

“What had happened to all the old taboos, to Israel’s standards of holiness? They seemed to have gone by in his that you didn’t have to observe every last bit of the Torah before you would count as a real member of Israel. He was saying that you didn’t have to make the journey to Jerusalem, offer sacrifice, and go through purity rituals, in order to be regarded as clean, forgiven, restored as a member of Israel. You could be healed, restored, and forgiven right here, where Jesus was, at this party, just by being there with him and welcoming his way of bringing in the Kingdom. No wonder his family said he was out of his mind.

Not only his family. The pressure groups that were urging Israel to become more holy, more faithful to Torah, would be furious. This man was undermining everything they were trying to do. The revolutionaries would be puzzled, then angry. This man was using their language but meaning the wrong thing by it; every serious radical politician knew that you had to organize, sharpen up the weapons, and be ready to fight. And even
Jesus’ closest followers, who at a certain point came to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, not just a great prophet, seemed to have remained puzzled by what he was actually trying to achieve.”[17]

John the Baptist’s disciples were not only puzzled, they were disturbed: “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?”[18] Similarly, “the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem” questioned Jesus over his break with “the tradition of the elders.”[19] Clearly, both groups of questioners are here practices we might call “asceticism” in the broad current in Judaism in Jesus’ time. Is Jesus rejecting these particular practices or all such practices? What is going on? Consider the following:

When the disciples pick and eat the corn on the Sabbath, Jesus defends their behaviour.[20]

In Jesus’ vision, the ultimate measure of human behaviour is the depth of the love.[21]

He tells stories of extravagant love to illustrate his moral vision.[22]

He also tells stories that seem to imply that his disciples should not try to root out evil.[23]

Jesus allows himself to be a wasteful thing to do.[24]

Interwoven with these reports are others:

Jesus “is led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil.”[25]

He encourages almsgiving, prayer and fasting.[26]

He asks for unconditional commitment from those who would be his disciples.[27]

He sets his face towards and urges his disciples to do the same.[28]

When the rich young man approaches him and asks what he must do, Jesus tells him to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.”[29]

Perhaps it is fair to say that Jesus is interested in the human heart, the radical dispositions and fundamental moral orientation of the person. And this is not measured by conformity to rules or by feats of discipline. Thus Jesus says:

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”[30]

“… he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man …”[31]

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[32]

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.”[33]

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”[34]

St Paul and Christian asceticism

Perhaps the best entry point to understand St Paul’s approach to this question is found in his Letter to the Philippians. Firstly, St Paul is very clear that there is nothing we can do in and of ourselves that will achieve our own salvation. It is all the work of God, but nonetheless a work with which we must cooperate:

Work at your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both the willing and the doing according to his good pleasure.”[35]

St Paul then goes on to describe this cooperation with God in more graphic detail:

For him I have accepted the loss of all other things and look on them all as refuse if only I can gain Christ and be given a place in him, with the uprightness I have gained not from the Law, but through faith in Christ, an uprightness from God, based on faith, that I may come to know him and the power of his resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being moulded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection
from the dead. Not that I have secured it already, I have not yet reached my goal, but I am still pursuing it in the attempt to take hold of the prize for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not reckon myself as having taken hold of it; I can only say that, forgetting all that lies behind me, and straining forward to what lies in front, I am racing towards the finishing-point to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.[36]

This is a more mature statement of a thought he had expressed much earlier in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not realize that, though all the runners in the to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this is to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither. So that is how I run, not without a clear goal; and how I box, not wasting blows on air. I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified.[37]

Louis Bouyer summarizes St Paul’s thought:

What the ‘law of Christ,’ the ‘law of the Spirit’ requires is precisely liberation with regard to the ‘law of the members,’ a deliverance which gives us up completely to God, to his agape. Whence the very special dialectic between slavery and freedom in St Paul’s thought. We were slaves of sin, of death, of the enemy powers (cf Galatians 4 & Romans 7). Christ has freed us from all this (cf Romans 6:18; 8:2; Galatians 5:1). But the Apostle tells us: ‘Having been delivered from sin, you have become slaves with regard to justice …. with regard to God’ (Romans 6:18-22). On his own part, the Apostle continually proclaims himself the ‘slave of Christ’ (cf Romans 1:1; Galatians 2:10; Philippians 1:1), or better, he says of himself, ‘through Christ, your slave’ (2Corinthains 4:5). Does he not invite all his disciples to make themselves: ‘through charity slaves of one
another’ (Galatians 5:13)? Christ himself, even though he was in the very image of God, took the likeness of a slave for our sake (cf Philippians 2:7). And it was by doing so that he was brought to the supreme lordship
(Philippians 2:11).[38]

A paradigm from the Christian Scriptures

Paul Ricoeur gives us a paradigm within which we can discover a profound convergence between what we read in the Gospels and what we read in St Paul.[39] Indeed, Ricoeur’s insight applies to Christian asceticism as such. He finds in the parable of the treasure in the field[40] a structure which underlies the whole teaching of Jesus. In that parable, says Ricoeur, there are three moments:

Finding – which might also be described as “event”[41] or as epiphany;

Selling – which might also be described as “reversal” or metanoia;

Buying – which might also be described as “decision” or commitment.

we must be “taken hold of.” Put simply, we must know, first hand, the experience of being loved by God. The experience of love is paradoxical: it
draws us out of ourselves to find ourselves; it sets us in motion even as it stops us in our tracks. Love compels us to seek love. Dyonisius the Areopagite (c 500) says it beautifully:

In God the eros desire is outgoing, ecstatic. Because of it lovers no longer belong to themselves but to those whom they love. God also goes out of himself … when he captivates all creatures by the spell of his love and his desire.[42]

Maximus the Confessor (580-662) writes similarly of the motivating power of love:

In so far as God is himself the true object of the love, he is the moving force in others who look to him and possess according to their own nature the capacity for desire.”[43]

Finally, John Climacus (579-649) says:

Blessed is the person whose desire for God has become like the lover’s passion for the beloved.”[44]

Then, like the listeners at the first Pentecost, we will be prompted to ask, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, ‘What must we do?”. And we will want to do or, rather, be possessed by the treasure. What might seem too hard, absurd, unattractive or simply irrelevant to someone who has not found the treasure, in the light of the treasure, such things become matters of great
import and urgency.

As we read in the Desert Fathers:

Abbot Anthony says: ‘A time is coming when people will go mad and when they meet someone who is not mad, they will turn to him and say, “You are out of your mind,” just because he is not like them’.”

The experience of God’s liberating love, manifested in Christ, puts us in motion. It may lead if we do whatever we can never to lose that treasure. We are drawn rather than driven; the motor force of our lives is the Spirit of Love. Thus the Holy Spirit and our spirit bear united witness that we are God’s children (cf Romans 8:16).

Summarizing the essential elements of Christian asceticism

We can distinguish certain principles of Christian asceticism from the foregoing:

Firstly, our “practice” and “training” must be God is enfleshed in our world. Where God is God does, and God’s doing is loving, and God’s loving is liberating. The great symbols of God’s liberating love are the Cross and the empty tomb.

Secondly, God in Christ overtakes us. We experience God as the heart’s deepest longing. God moves and we cannot remain unmoved. We discover the treasure and are set in motion, we taste and are drawn by delight.[45]

Thirdly, when we are overtaken, when we discover “the treasure,” the question comes as if unbidden: What must I do? We must respond. Mary’s response as recorded in Luke 1:38 becomes our response: “You see before the Lord’s servant, let it happen according to your word.”

Fourthly, if our response is to enter the encounter more deeply, then a journey or pilgrimage is begun through Him, with Him and in Him; and through the power of His Spirit, we discover our true self in this movement into increasing intimacy. St Paul describes it well in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God.”

Fifthly, that journey inevitably involves – that are calculated to facilitate the journey towards deepening intimacy by helping us to grow in knowledge and setting us free. St Paul sums it up when writing to the community in Philippi: “…. to come to know him and the power of his resurrection.”[46]

This is, in sum, Christian asceticism. It will take a different shape for different people in different cultures in different moments in history. The essence will always be there: Deliberate choices and actions to enhance our freedom that we might thus facilitate the journey towards greater intimacy with God in Christ.

We could use St Paul’s thought: We do what must be done to create more and more room for our spirit and the Holy Spirit to bear united witness that we are indeed God’s children.[47] The focus will always be Christ, the concrete objective will always be greater knowledge and freedom, the ultimate aim will always be to allow God’s infinite Love to penetrate ever more deeply into the bowels of creation, firstly in us, secondly through us in the world.

The distinguishing signs of authentic Christian asceticism will be increasing freedom and grace in one’s daily living. The assumption in all this is that we will, through these practices, come to the fullness of our unique and communal human identity as human beings. As we have been loved into freedom, so we will go into the world in such a way that allows God to love others into freedom through us.

Concluding Remarks

– choose to be Christians. We are chosen. God’s liberating love sets us in motion. Then, by the grace of God, we make our choice and we act. Like any lover, it is common enough to want to do grand things for the Beloved. Prudence sometimes takes a back seat. It is expected that we will choose to act in ways that maximize the possibilities of our relationship with the Beloved growing rather than fading.

In concrete terms, this scenario is going to be played out in many different ways. It will be affected by temperament, historical moment, cultural context, social custom, to say nothing of personal realities like generosity or lack of it. Whatever form it takes, the focus of authentic Christian asceticism will always be Christ, its ultimate intent will always be love, its primary movement will always be affirmation, its practical outcomes will always be a life of increasing knowledge and freedom. And, for most of us, the place of asceticism will be the mundane; each day carries with it many opportunities to submit to the truth, to allow the grace of God to set us free from those various forms of self-centredness and self-absorption, self-deceit and self-aggrandisement that oppress us and prevent us from becoming what we are called to be.

Afterword: Insight from Thomas Merton

Even as a very young man of 24 and a convert of less Merton had a remarkable insight into the nature of Christian asceticism. He is cited at length here to catch the full flavour of his insight:

That the fellows are repelled by ‘asceticism’ is easy to catalogue; perhaps too easy though. It is easy to be repelled by false ‘mortification of the flesh where people shout against sin and have in their hearts nothing but hardness and uncharity, and really are so busy hating sin that they have no time to love God. This they see into very clearly. Because of that, however, they conclude since there is some good in drinking, that [there] is some happiness however unsteady and futile, and some pleasure in loving a woman’s body (although that almost always ends in dissatisfaction and restlessness and disgust if you are not in love with her so that you want to be with her always, married) then you can get some inkling about the love of God through these pleasures and stimulations. And yet Gibney is utterly unsatisfied and unhappy and restless and disgusted. But
try to say that ‘mortification of the flesh’ means turning away from temptations and therefore will not be unhappy and desperate when they elude you. That mortification of the flesh does not mean concentrating your intellect, will and memory to whipping your body, but a means to give your intellect, will and memory over utterly to God and the love of Him; that mortification of the flesh does not mean that you deliberately weaken and destroy your body with the same intensity of purpose as an athlete builds his life, so as to end up being proud of your emaciation, just as a bad athlete might be proud of being musclebound, just because his muscles were large; that shutting out desire is like going into a quiet room where you can pray in peace and be calm and ask God for His love, to do good works, patiently and happily full of that Love.

They see very well that this kind of false and disastrous recitation of asceticism leads only to pride: but do not believe there can be a true self-denial; Lax, who as horrified with them as transported with the rest of them that came later.

When I said that it was hard, if you were attached to drink and women and pleasures and ambitions, to love God and even to pray to him. Lax said nothing should be hard. That is of course true: what he meant is, just as I did, that you should be so full of the love of God as to be no longer attached to these pleasures, so that it would no longer be hard to abandon them. Nevertheless you have to abandon them, and because of our weakness and selfishness, when God calls us to Him (as he always does, always, every minute), we go to these pleasures which turn us aside, hold us back from Him. But Christ came not to and saying, whoever thought he was so who of us is just? We are all weak and selfish and proud, and all bear the burden of Adam’s sin; but Lax does not hold with any doctrine of original sin. And he would have the love of God be easy, and so would Christ and so would the worst sinner, the unhappiest of all: and so it is easy, that is plain. Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find. What is the way? Go sell all that thou hast, [give] to the that is plain. And it is easy: that is it is the mild yoke of Christ. The cross is heavy and the way of the cross is hard for the flesh to follow, but prayer makes that light and easy too.

But it is hard to try to carry the weight of this burden and the weight of sins and desires and lusts too, in fact you go two steps under the combined burden and fall down in despair, because you cannot carry them both without trying to be a camel getting through the eye of a needle.

But when you have put down your sins and desires, then it is easy.

A man going to the house of his lover, which is at the top of the hill, does not carry a sack of scrap iron and old junk to sell to junk peddlers he may meet on the way, especially when he really knows nobody wants the junk and scrap iron anyway, least of all himself or the junk peddlers, who are all somewhere else hurrying to the houses of their various loves. As he throws his sack of scrap iron into the ditch and hurries up the hill to the house where his love is, and doesn’t know whether the sun is hot but only that it is bright, and hardly knows that because all he yearns for is to be at the house where his love is.[48]

Suggested exercises

1. Pause a couple of times in the coming day and ask yourself the open question, “What am I feeling?” Be gently present to yourself. Be non-judgmental. Simply acknowledge what you become aware of.

2. Take time to observe something natural (eg a tree, a sunset). Pause and – literally still. Let the fact of nature get inside you. Or do something that puts you in touch with the earth (eg gardening, bush walking, a picnic out in the bush).

3. Next time you are with people remind yourself that they, like you, are tragic-comic stories.

1] Cited in Elizabeth A Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum, 2008, 84.

[2] Mark 8:34-37. See also Matthew 16:24-28 and Luke 9:23-27.

[3] Ephesians 1:9-10.

[4] For a useful general discussion of the background to Christian asceticism, see Friedrich Wulf, “Asceticism” in Sacramentum Mundi, Volume I, Burns & Oates, 1968, 110-116; Hans von Campenhausen, “Early Christian Asceticism” in the author’s Tradition and Life in the Church: Essays and Lectures in Church History, Collins, 1968, 90-122; J Lachowski, “Asceticism (In the New Testament)” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, McGraw Hill, 1967, 937-938; T R O’Connor, “Asceticism (Early Christian)” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, McGraw Hill, 1967, 936-937; Rosemary Rader, “Asceticism” in A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Gordon S Wakefield, ed, SCM Press, 1984, 24-28; Kenneth Russell, “Asceticism” in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, Michael Downey, ed, The Liturgical Press, 1993

[5] Proverbs 25:28.

[6] The Greeks were very familiar with the notion of askesis, meaning “exercise”, “practice” or “training” for the purpose of attaining something that is worth aspiring to. In connection with the ideal of bodily excellence, the wod and its cognates denote the strenuous training and the whole mode of life that leads to the highest possible degree of physical fitness (eg Plato’s Republic, 403E). In this reference in the Republic, Plato also makes reference to training the mind: to the ideal of the athlete (and the soldier) was added the ideal of the man who, by exercising his intellectual faculties acquired wisdom. This was further extended into the training and practice require to become “the good and worthy man” The practice” and “training” for the sake of freeing oneself for relationship was also known to the Greeks. For example, the group that gathered around Pythagoras (570-500BC) in Croton, Italy, lived a lifestyle very similar to a monastic community.

[7] Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality: Volume The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, The Seabury Press, 1963, 209.

[8] Using this very broad description, even ritual and worship fall of asceticism. We will see, according to later use, that the word often takes on a more restricted meaning.

[9] Cf Genesis 12:1-4.

[10] Cf Numbers 11:5-6.

[11] Cf Deuteronomy 8:2-6.

[12] Thus, Isaiah 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”; Jeremiah 20:7-9: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord
has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Amos:1:1: “The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.”

[13] See Leviticus 16:29; 23:27 & Numbers 29:7.

[14] See Zechariah 7:3 & 5; 8:19. It is worth noting that these references in the Prophet Zechariah are within the context of the call to justice. They carry with them a warning similar to that which Jesus will give his
contemporaries later on.

[15] See Judges 20:26; 1Samuel 7:6; 2Chronicles 20:3; Judith 4:9; Esther 4:16; Jeremiah 4:12 & 36:6; Joel 1:14 & 2:12, 15; Jonas 3:5; 1Maccabees 3:47 etc.

16] This raises another dimension to religious asceticism: Appeasement. Thus the divine may be persuaded to withhold wrath or bestow special healing or blessings when the earnestness of the people is so obviously displayed in their ability to inflict suffering on themselves. While this element of appeasement does appear occasionally in Christian asceticism, I believe it is not an essential feature of it.

[17] N T Wright, Who Was Jesus?, SPCK, 1992, 99-100.

[18] Cf Matthew 9:14-17. See also Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39.

[19] Cf Matthew 15:1-9.

[20] Cf Matthew 12:1-8. See also Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5.

[21] Cf Matthew 22:34-40. See also Mark 12:28-31 and Luke 10:25-28.

[22] For example the parables of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and the lost son (Luke 15:11-32).

[23] Cf The parable of the darnel (Matthew 13:24-30).

[24] Cf Matthew 26:6-13. See also Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8.

[25] Cf Matthew 4:1-11. See also Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13.

[26] Cf Matthew 6:1-4, 5-6 and 16-18.

[27] Cf Matthew 8:18-22. See also Luke 9:57-60 and Matthew 10:37-39.

[28] Cf Luke 9:51. See also, for example, the prophecies of the passion (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22); the call to the disciples to renounce themselves and take up the cross (Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23-27).

[29] Cf Matthew 19:16-22. See also Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.

[30] Matthew 6:21.

[31] Mark 3:5.

[32] Matthew 11:29-30.

[33] Matthew 12:34-35.

[34] Matthew 15:19-20. See also Matthew 7:15-20. See Mark 7:18-23: “He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'” See Luke 6:43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” See also, for example, Matthew 5:29, where the man is condemned
because he has “already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

[35] Philippians 2:12. Compare this with the image of the earthen vessel used in 2Corinthians 4:7.

[36] Philippians 3:8-14.

[37] 1Corinthians 9:24-27. both apocalyptic to St Paul’s thinking. The sense of an imminent parousia in particular. Louis Bouyer writes: “It would be a complete mistake to think that the Apostle gave this advice only in view of an imminent parousia. It is certainly essential to his vision to expect the parousia at any moment. But, while we must ‘use this world as if not using it,’ and the most radical kinds of abstinence, therefore, are recommended to the Christian, this is in order that his heart may not be attached to anything, from the moment when he ‘died to sin and lives to God in
Jesus Christ’ (Romans 6:12). From then on, indeed, as the Epistle to the Colossians says, ‘You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God ….’ And so he exhorts: ‘If you are risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; delight in the things that are above, not in those that are on the earth’ (Colossians 3:1-4). Louis Bouyer, op cit, 88.

[38] Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality: Volume The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, The Seabury Press, 1963, 86.

[39] Cf Paul Ricoeur, “Listening to the Parables of Jesus” in C E Reagan & D Stewart, editors, Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his Work, Beacon Press, 1978, 239-245.

[40] Cf Matthew 13:44.

[41] From the Latin roots: venire and e, meaning literally to come out. The implication is that an “event” is a moment in which there is revelation, a moment in which the truth comes to light.

[42] Divine Names, IV, 13. Earlier in the same Chapter Dyonisius writes: “And like as Goodness draws all things to Itself, and is the great Attractive Power that unites things that are sundered (being as It is: the Godhead and the Supreme Fount and Producer of Unity); and like as all things desire It as their beginning, their cohesive power and end; and like as It is the Good (as the Scriptures say) from which all things were made and are (having been brought into existence as from a Perfect Cause); and like as in the Good all things subsist, being kept and controlled in an almighty Receptacle; and like as unto the Good all things are turned (as unto the proper End of each); and like as those that have mind and reason seeking It by knowledge, those who have perception seeking It by perception, those that have no perception seeking It by the natural movement of their vital instinct, and those that are without life and have mere existence seeking It by their aptitude for that bare participation whence this mere existence is theirs- even so does the light (being as it were Its visible image) draw together all things and attract them unto Itself: those that can see, those that have motion, those that receive Its light and warmth, those that are merely held in being by its rays.” (IV, 4)

[43] On The Divine Names, IV, 4.

[44] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 30th step, 5.

[45] Cf Philippians 3:12-13.

[46] Philippians 3:10.

[47] See Romans 8:16.

[48] Journal entry of Sunday, October 29. See The Journals of Thomas Merton Volume One 1939-41 – Run to the Mountain: Story of a Vocation, ed Patrick Hart, Harper, 1995.

Some further reading:

“On Not Giving Up Too Easily: Thoughtsd For Ash Wednesday”

“Keeping the Lenten Fast: Thoughts from a Dialgue with Islam”

“The Virtue of Asceticism”