Asceticism is one of the most frequently misunderstood and historically abused aspects of the Christian faith. But it can hardly be ignored.

It is common knowledge that the earliest days of the Church were fraught with persecution and martyrdom. As the Church grew and become both socially and politically legitimate, asceticism came into its own as an alternative to the normalcy of metropolitan Christian living.

The timing, I think, is not accidental. The Desert Fathers went to the desert to do battle with the devil, and in leaving the confines of city life engaged an ascetic existence akin to John the Baptist’s, only in many cases more extreme.

While abuses certainly occurred, it seems clear that the ascetics were trying to keep in the Church’s consciousness the lesson it had so painfully learned during its time of persecution and martyrdom—that this world is not our home, and that it stands under the judgment of God. The Church awaits the Bridegroom’s return, and so she joyfully accepts the tribulations and death and renounces the pleasures of this world, which are inevitably tainted by the stain of sin.

Such is the lesson of Lent. In practicing the discipline of abstinence from (some of) the pleasures of this world, we remind ourselves of the need for Godly restraint due to the reality of sin in our lives. In withdrawing from the world, we are confronted by its grip over us and empowered to return to it.* By disrupting the habits of our ‘normal’ life, Lent recalls to us the startling otherness of the Kingdom of God and our own need for salvation.

In engaging in the disciplines of abstinence—fasting, silence, solitude, etc.—we are reminded that it is the Lord who is our portion. As we let go of food, we learn that man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In Lent, we are exhorted to “seek the things above,” the invisible, imperishable joys rather than the temporal and transient pleasures.

As the prophet Jeremiah puts it in Lamentations:

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it, and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;
Let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope…
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!
Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven!
*In recent years, an emphasis has been placed on the disciplines of engagement (reading, prayer, etc) during Lent, which is good. I focus on abstinence here simply because historically that is the primary focus of Lent.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. Matt,
    Rowan Williams in his book on reading history suggests that the move to the desert was a continuation of the idea of “resident alien” which in the time of persecution was to transmit narratives of martyrdom. After Constantine this separation from society expressed itself in other ways.

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  2. […] Lent and asceticism. A key insight someone told me recently is “asceticism is prayer.” […]

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  3. Thought you might appreciate some quotes from the desert fathers.

    Anything that is easily found is also easily lost, whereas what is found after much labour will be guarded with vigilance.
    – St Isaac of Syria

    Suffering deliberately embraced cannot free the soul totally from sin unless the soul is also tried in the fire of suffering that comes unchosen. For the soul is like a sword: if it does not go through fire and water, that is, through suffering deliberately embraced and suffering that comes unchosen, it cannot but be shattered by the blows of fortune.
    – Ilias the Presbyter

    If we want to set our lives aright and find peace, it is not the tolerant attitude of others that will do it for us. It will come about, rather, by our learning how to show them compassion. If we try to avoid this hard struggle of compassion by preferring a withdrawn and solitary life, we will simply drag our unhealed obsessions into solitude with us. We might well have hidden them; we certainly will not have eliminated them. If we do not seek liberation from our obsessions, then becoming more withdrawn and less social may even make us more blind to them, since it can mask them.
    – St John Cassian

    Whatever helps us to achieve purity of heart, we must follow with all our might; whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing.
    – Abba Moses

    Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written, ‘If a righteous man falls seven times’ -that is, repeatedly throughout his life- seven times ‘shall he rise again’ (Prov 24.16 LXX).
    – St John of Karpathos

    Without temptations, God’s concern is not perceived, nor is freedom of speech with Him acquired, nor is spiritual wisdom learnt, nor does the love of God become grounded in the soul.
    – St Isaac of Syria

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