Liberating Asceticism* 03-08-2013

Giving things up for Lent is a tradition. During Lent, Christians of all stripes the world over have given up sugar. They have give up meat. Some get creative about the Lenten art of giving things up. A friend of mine in Montana has given up all talking for one day a week. On his day of silence he carries around a small chalk board. And when anyone speaks to him he gives written responses on his chalk board, in order not to break silence. Another friend of mine in California has given up food one day a week. She calls it a “juice fast.” She drinks only juice on those days.

These are all mild forms of asceticism.

The word asceticism has gotten a bad reputation in Western Society, yet rightly understood it’s the key to restoring balance to our lives and communities. Asceticism is retreat from the senses, because God in the most profound mystical sense is beyond the senses. As scripture tells us, “we live by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). In other words we live by faith and not by objects of the senses. Asceticism affirms that our deepest and most treasured life (that treasure in a field or pearl of great price that Jesus refers to in parables (Matthew 13:44-46)) is not of the senses and is not about sensory stimulation. Christian mystics claim that God communicates with us through many diverse means, but that God’s first language is silence.

In order to make room for the pregnant silences, in which God’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12 NKJV) can speak to us in the depths of our hearts, other less important priorities are intentionally set aside. This laying aside of sense attractions, is asceticism rightly understood, which is not repressive, but liberating. We deny our senses, for a greater reward that is waiting in the pregnant silences. The extreme deprivations associated with asceticism in the ancient past need to be recast. Yet, the primary insight that periodic abstinence from sensory stimulation (solitude), from auditory stimulation (silence), from food (fasting), from sex (abstinence), from incessant activity (stillness), etcetera, is liberating. The compulsive addiction to sense objects is what is actually repressive and enslaving.

May our Lenten journey leading up to holy week be characterized by asceticism in the liberating sense of the word, which is freedom from the distractions of the senses, in order to realign our being with the sacred.