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.