Asceticism has its etymological roots in the Greek word askesis, which, in its pre-Christian form, referred to a variety of disciplines that served to cultivate intellectual, moral, spiritual and even athletic excellence. Early Christians took the word up to refer to the set of disciplines employed to form the mind of Christ in the Christian and break down the dysfunctional patterns of sin. This discipline included a well-ordered use of time, of one’s possessions and household, of food, of the inner passions and emotions, of sex and sensual pleasures, all ordered to the love of God and neighbor.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving captured the heart of the whole ascetical life for Jew and Christian. They became convinced that if one practiced these three, intent on coming to love God and neighbor, then one would be truly free.
For a Christian ascetic, all created things are at the service of love, and nothing binds us other than the venicula amoris, the “chains of love.” St. John of the Cross’ entire Ascent-Dark Night is an extended meditation on (a) just how enslaved we are to all things great and small, and (b) what the cost is of consenting to God to break those chains.
Freedom is not free.
These “nights” of passage to freedom that John describes, like a God-imposed interior fast, leave the soul at the end of the journey the freest of God’s creatures, able to place all things in service to the work of Christian love.
At its core, the freedom St. John speaks of is a freedom from enslavement to one’s own ego which is the true driving engine of all other enslavements. For him, asceticism assists grace in dismantling the entangled egocentric machinery and opens the heart to become pro multis, “for the many.”
I think here of the words of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:
“There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread…
Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
An ascetic lives for such worthiness, strives for such inner freedom; and, for a Christian, we know that freedom is given for love, and love is living the “law of the gift” that commands me to live for the Other. Those Frankl describes, who emerge from the midst of such dire circumstances as “martyrs” are not simple miracles of nature. They are the fruit of years of lived askesis that has as its goal being bound by nothing other than love, so that all things, all circumstances wholly serve the one thing necessary: to love God above all things, and neighbor as self.
Sometimes I wonder if I overstress the theme of love in my teaching and writing. I may. I don’t say this to be facetious, as there is always a danger is using a word too often that you will siphon power from it its latent force. But I am emboldened by the story that St. Jerome tells regarding the apostle and evangelist John. Jerome says that one day John, as a very old man, was carried into the church of Ephesus so the faithful could hear the testimony of the last living eyewitness of the historical Jesus. However, as was his custom, he only repeated again and again the words, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he would share no more than that simple phrase, John said, “Because it is the Lord’s command, and it is enough.”
It is enough.
But it’s only “enough” when the command is itself clothed in flesh and blood, when it sweats under the midday heat and gives away its last piece of bread that a hungry face might smile.
And even in the absence of my own effective witness, I still rejoice in hope, knowing that we have a cloud of witnesses who spur us on to freedom in our Exodus to the land where love alone is King.
So let’s unleash the Church’s ascetic tradition here and now, and raise a generation worthy of their sufferings; free as the Freest man that ever lived.