There was a time when people spoke not only scornfully but with annoyance about anything that can be called “asceticism,” as if it were not merely something wrong, but something unnatural and insulting. They thought that asceticism arose from the fear and hatred of life, even from perverted feelings; that it revealed the hatred of Christianity for the world, the corrupted sentiments of the priest who depreciated living nature in order to justify his own existence, and so on.
That was the time of liberal bourgeois prosperity. Things seem to have changed somewhat since then. Nevertheless the word asceticism still awakens resentment, so it is worthwhile to ask what it really means.
Much of the resistance against asceticism stemmed from the desire for license in following one’s urges and instincts. But this also involved a false concept of life, or, more exactly, of the manner in which life grows and bears fruit.
How does life function in nature? Men like to compare man with nature when they wish to make room for something which is contrary to the spirit of Christ. How does life go on in nature? How does a healthy animal grow and develop? By following its urges. Then everything turns out well, for instinct keeps it from going wrong.
If an animal is satisfied, it stops eating. If it is rested, it gets up. When the urge toward procreation is active, the animal follows it. When the time has passed, the urge is silent. The manner, the type, so to speak, according to which the life of nature is carried on is simply that of working out its fulfillment. The interior drive expresses itself in external action.
But what is the case with man? In him, there is a force at work which we do not find in the animal. This is so plainly real and operative that one must be blind in order not to see it. It is the spirit. This brings all that we call nature into a new situation.
In the realm of the spirit, the urge has a different meaning than it has in mere nature. It plays and works differently; so it is foolish to seek to understand the life of man by comparing it with the life of the animal. At present, men often carry the folly to greater lengths and try to understand man by comparing him with a machine. But let us not go into that. In any case, it is foolish to set up the life of an animal as the measure of the life of man.
What is the function of the spirit in regard to human urges: in the drive toward food, procreation, activity, rest, and comfort? First of all, something surprising: it intensifies the urge. No animal follows the drive toward food as much as a man who makes the pleasure its own end and thereby harms himself. In no animal does the sexual urge reach the boundless extent which it has in a man who permits it to destroy his honor and his life. No animal has the urge to kill that man has. His wars have no real counterpart in the animal kingdom.
All that we can call an urge operates differently in a man than in an animal. The spirit gives a unique freedom to the life-impulses; they become stronger and deeper, with far greater possibilities of demand and response. But at the same time, they lose the protection of the organic order which binds and secures them in the animal. They become unregulated, and their meaning is endangered.
The concept of “living to the limit” is a blind one. The animal lives to the limit; it must. But man must not. The spirit gives a new meaning to the urge. It works into the urge and gives it depth, character, and beauty. It brings it into relation with the world of values, and also with that which bears these values — the person — and so lifts it to the sphere of freedom. In the animal, the drives constitute “nature”; the spirit makes of them what we call “culture,” taking this word as an expression of responsibility and self-conquest.
In the case of the animal, the drive builds the environment that is suited to its kind, but thereby also accommodates it to conditions and limitations. In the case of man, it leads to a free encounter with the breadth and wealth of the world, but thereby it is also endangered. All that we call excessive, overwrought, and unnatural becomes possible — and enticing.
The spirit elevates man above the urge, not thereby destroying it or becoming, as a foolish statement expresses it, the “adversary of life.” Only a corrupt spirit, traitor to its own nature, does that. By the spirit, man acquires the possibility of ordering and forming the urge, and so leading it to greater heights, to its own perfection, even as an urge. Of course, it is thereby exposed to the danger of deformation and of going counter to nature.
Let us emphasize once more that all this points to the fact that a drive or urge in man means something different from an urge in the animal and that it makes no sense if a man seeks the pattern for his life in the animal or in mere nature. Asceticism means that a man resolves to live as a man.
This brings about a necessity which does not exist for the animal; that is, the need to keep his urges in an order which is freely willed and to overcome his tendency toward excess or toward a wrong direction.
This is not to imply that the urges are in themselves evil. They belong to the nature of man, and operate in all forms and areas of his life. They compose his store of energy. To weaken them would be to weaken life. But life is good. A deep current in the history of religion and ethics proceeds from the thought that the urges as such, sexual activity, the body, and even matter itself are evil — indeed the very principle of evil — while the spirit as such is good. This is dualism, in which, certainly, noble motives are at work; but, as a whole, it becomes a dangerous error, and very often ends in a surrender to the urge.
The motive for true asceticism does not lie in such a struggle to overcome the urges, but in the necessity of bringing them into proper order. The order is determined by various considerations: the question of health, regard for other persons, and our duties to our vocation and our work. Every day makes new demands and obliges us to keep ourselves in order. And this is asceticism. The word, derived from the Greek askesis, means practice and exercise, exercise in the proper directing of one’s life.
We must also consider the fact that there is a hierarchy of values. For instance, there are everyday values: those that pertain to our physical life; above these there are the values of our vocation and our work; still higher are those of personal relations and intellectual activity; and finally those which are attained by our immediate relation to God. We realize these values by means of the powers of our being; but these are limited, and we must understand clearly to which tasks we want to turn them. We must choose, and then carry out our choice. This requires exertion and sacrifices — and that, too, is asceticism.
Apart from all this, everyone who knows the tendency of human nature toward self-indulgence also knows how necessary it is to impose upon ourselves voluntary exercises in self-control, such as are not demanded by our immediate purposes. They are necessary so that the will may more easily fulfill the demands of duty when these present themselves. They are necessary also as a way to freedom which consists in being master of oneself, of one’s impulses and circumstances.
The physical urges which proceed from the somatopsychic organization of man present themselves so plainly to our consciousness that the mental and spiritual urges can easily be overlooked. But these, as a matter of fact, are more decisive from the point of view of our total community life. The building up of what we call “the personality,” its preservation in the world, and its activity and creativity is based upon mental and spiritual urges.
There is the urge toward recognition and esteem, toward power in all its forms. There is the urge toward social and community life, toward freedom and culture, toward knowledge and artistic creation, etc. All of these urges have, as we said, their significance as impulses basic to self-preservation and self-development.
But they are also inclined to become excessive, to bring our life out of harmony with the lives of others and so to become disturbing or destructive.
Therefore a constant discipline is necessary, a discipline whose principles are determined by ethics and practical philosophy; this discipline is asceticism.
But let us put aside generalities and look at a concrete situation — for example, a friendship. Two persons have learned to know and like each other. They have discovered a community of tastes and viewpoints. They find each other congenial and trust each other. They think that their friendship is secure and make no further efforts to preserve it.
But, as we can expect, there are also differences between them, and gradually these make themselves felt. Misunderstandings arise — annoyances, tensions. But neither of the two seeks the causes where they really are, namely in his own self-confidence and carelessness, and after a short time, the two get on each other’s nerves. The quiet confidence disappears, and gradually the whole relationship disintegrates.
If a friendship is to endure, it must be guarded. There must be something that will preserve it. Each of the two must give the other room to be what he is. Each must become conscious of his own failings and regard those of the other with the eyes of friendship. To will this and to carry it out in the face of the hypersensitiveness, sloth, and narrowness of our own nature — that again is asceticism.
Why do so many marriages grow dull and empty? Because each of the two partners has the basic idea that the purpose of marriage is “happiness,” which means that each can find fulfillment in simply living his own life to the fullest extent.
Actually, a true marriage is a union of two lives; it is helpfulness and loyalty. Marriage means that “each shall bear the other’s burden,” as St. Paul says.[Cf. Galatians 6:2] So a spiritual responsibility must keep watch over it. Again and again, each must accept the other as the person he is, must renounce what cannot be, must put away the mendacious notions fostered by films, which destroy the reality of marriage. He must know that after the finding of each other in the first stage of love, the task just begins. A genuine marriage can endure only through self-discipline and self-conquest. Then it becomes real, capable of producing life and of sending life into the world.
Someone founds an institution, undertakes a work, or does whatever his vocation entails. Let us imagine the most propitious case, that this is his true vocation and he is doing that for which he has talent or ability, and so likes doing it. At first he enjoys the task and puts forth every effort.
Perhaps it would be necessary even then to tell him to keep within the measure of the possible and not to overdo. For after a time, the tension relaxes, the more quickly as the original effort was more intense; but the tasks continue. What will happen if they are based only on the “full life,” the joy in working and in accomplishing results? Then indifference will result and later aversion, and finally everything will collapse.
No work can flourish if it is not sustained by a responsibility which induces a man to perform his task faithfully and unselfishly.
Human life has many strata. There are superficial things, some that go deeper, and some that are quite essential – and each stratum has its requirements, values, and fulfillments. Plainly, we cannot have everything at the same time; we must choose, must surrender one thing in order that the other can come to pass.
Let us consider everyday life once more. The man who constantly watches movies loses his taste for great drama; he no longer understands it. So he must ask himself what he really wants and must choose. He must put away the superficial charms of the movies in order to be capable of experiencing what is more valuable, perhaps to become so once more; or he must stay with the movies and persuade himself that these are the art of the times, that he needs the relaxation, and cannot force himself, after the toil of the day, to the mental exertion that real drama demands, and so on.
The person who reads a great deal of trash loses the taste for good reading. So he must make up his mind as to what is more important for him. One who is constantly among people, talking and discussing, loses the ability to live with himself, and so loses all that which only reveals itself in solitude. Again it is a question of either-or. And much self-control is required to triumph over the restlessness which drives one out.
If a man wishes to obtain from life the precious gifts that it can bestow, then he must know that it is only by renouncing a lesser good that he can have the greater.
The people who preach the gospel of the “good life” say that we must not curtail this life; we must bring out all its possibilities and enjoy them. If we ask them what the true content of this life — its meaning and its standard — may be, they answer, “Life itself, the strong, sensitive rich life.” But is that true? Is life its own meaning and measure?
Not only ordinary people speak in this way. There have been whole philosophies that have taught the same thing. But is it not very revealing that today we have the opposite of this — namely, a philosophy of disappointment and of nausea?
The meaning of life does not consist in enjoying one’s own sensations and powers, but in bringing about the fulfillment of the task assigned to us. Man lives truly and fully if he knows his responsibility; if he carries out the task that awaits him; and if he meets the needs of the persons entrusted to him. But to recognize and to choose the right thing and reject what is wrong — this constant effort to transcend one’s own wishes and meet one’s obligations — that is asceticism.
Let us finally consider that which determines the meaning of our existence, the relation to the one who created us, under whose glance we live and before whom we must appear after our few years upon earth; then we shall easily see that no relation to Him can be established without discipline and self-conquest.
Man is not driven forcibly to God. If he does not discipline himself, betake himself to prayer in the morning and in the evening, make the observance of the Lord’s Day an important occasion, and have a book at hand which will show him again and again something of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the things of God [Ephesians 3:18], then his life continually passes over the quiet admonitions that come from within. When he should be with God, he is bored, for everything seems empty.
Lectures, newspapers, and radio teach him that religious values and relationships do not exist any longer for modern man, and he feels not only justified, but progressive. Like every other serious matter, to be at home with God, so that one associates with Him gladly and feels the joy of His presence, requires practice. It must be willed and carried out with much self-conquest, again and again. Then God gives us as a grace the sense of His holy presence.
So we shall have to learn that asceticism is an element of every life that is rightly lived. We shall do well if we practice setting limits to our urges, for the sake of proper measure. We shall learn to leave that which is less important but very attractive in order to attend to that which is more important. We shall take ourselves in hand in order to be spiritually free.
For example (we trust the reader will not mistake accuracy for pedantry), before going into the city we might resolve not to let ourselves be caught by advertisements and by people, but to keep our mind occupied with a fine thought or recollected in quiet freedom. Or we might turn off the radio so that the room will be still.
Perhaps we might remain at home one evening instead of going out, or say no sometimes when eating or drinking or smoking — or many things of that sort. As soon as we turn our attention to the matter, we shall find many occasions for a liberating practice: learning to endure pain instead of resorting immediately to medication; accepting inwardly the renunciation that may be salutary for us; greeting an uncongenial person with quiet friendliness.
These and other such actions are not great things. We are not speaking of strict fasting or night vigils or difficult penances, but of practice in right living; of the truth that our life is different from that of the animal. It is human life, in which the internal drives are lifted by the spirit into a glorious but dangerous freedom. This spirit gives them their motive force, but it must also supply the regulating power, by means of which life is not destroyed, but brought to its fullness.