Giving for God
An Introduction to Christian Asceticism
The word Asceticism is derived from the Greek word for an athlete. In the Roman world into which Christianity was born athletes of one sort or another were the equivalents of modern pop stars. That’s why they were often held up to the first Christians as examples of total dedication. If only they could dedicate themselves to spiritual perfection as these athletes were dedicated to physical perfection then they would attain the spiritual heights. The trouble was these secular athletes both believed and acted as if they alone were responsible for their physical perfection, as indeed they were, so many of their spiritual counterparts were deceived into believing the same. So when they threw themselves wholeheartedly into making themselves perfect they forgot that in the spiritual life they could do nothing without the help and strength that only God can give. In short they fell into a heresy that came to be called Pelagianism after one of it’s most famous exponents, and sadly Christians have been falling into it ever since.
Take me for instance. Like most European Catholics I was born and brought up in the aftermath of the Renaissance when the ideals and values of the classical world of Greece and Rome became fashionable once again. Once more, many like me were deceived by the same pagan ideas that had deceived many of the early Christians. I came to believe that I could become the architect of my own spiritual perfection and so I adopted a rigorous routine of asceticism that would have made me the envy of many an ancient athlete. I was in effect a Christian stoic, a Pelagian. After only a short time, failing to make myself into the saint of my dreams I was about to give up the spiritual life for good when I came across a little book called Pax Animae written by a Spanish Franciscan in 1587. It was a spiritual gem untouched by the spirit of humanism that was beginning to infect authentic Christian spirituality at that time. Reading its very first paragraph was the nearest I had come to a Damascus road experience.
“With love you may bring your heart to do whatsoever you may please. The hardest things become easy and pleasant, but without love you will find anything not only difficult but also quite impossible.”
It immediately enabled me to see that I had been misled into believing that I could be the architect of my own perfection. The rigorous asceticism that I had adopted to make myself perfect had done nothing but exhaust me. Now I could see that I would achieve nothing without coming to know and experience the self-same love that animated the man I wanted to emulate more than any other. I needed a new type of asceticism that would not dissipate my energies trying to do the impossible, but which would enable me to do the “one thing necessary”.
In short I needed to gather together what little resources I had to give to God quality space and time for prayer each day that would enable Him to fill me with the same love that filled Jesus and inspired everything that He said and did.
I knew that this love would have to be experienced if it was going to give me the inner security that would alone do for me in some small measure what it had done in full measure for Jesus. This was the only way to perfection that would be at all possible for the likes of me, or for anyone for that matter. Now I had a new asceticism with which to substitute the old and I called it the asceticism of the heart and mind.
This is true Christian asceticism not the asceticism of the stoic who thinks that they can make themselves perfect, but the asceticism of the believer who knows that they can’t and so turns them to the only One who can.
Now the more we are filled with Gods love then the easier it is to return His love in kind, as the divine suffuses and then surcharges human love so that it can reach up to God and out to others. Then, and only then are we able to Love God with our whole hearts and minds and with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The trouble is we make the same mistake with Christ as we do with the saints. We read their lives backwards. We read about their rigorous lives, their superhuman sacrifices and their heroic virtue, and believe that the only way we can be like them is to do likewise. If we only read their lives forward instead of backwards then we’d see that they were only capable of doing the seemingly impossible, because they first received the power to do it in prayer. If we try to be and do what they did without first receiving what they received then our brave attempts will inevitably end in disaster. True imitation of Christ or any of His saints means first copying the asceticism that they practised that led them to do all in their power to receive the Holy Spirit who inspired them. They had the humility to realise that they couldn’t do anything without the love that only He can give.
The Asceticism for the beginner then is quite simple: – Don’t give up anything you like or enjoy except when it prevents you from giving quality space and time to God in prayer each day. If you think it’s too easy then try it and stick to it and you’ll soon find it’s not quite so easy as you thought. So don’t let first enthusiasm fool you into heroics that you will never sustain. Now when you have persevered for long enough you will gradually begin to receive and then experience the love that will enable you to do what is quite impossible without it.
When a person falls in love and begins to experience being loved, then there is nothing that they wouldn’t do nor any sacrifice that they wouldn’t make for their lover. In fact they positively look for things to do, the harder and the more exacting the better, to enable them to show the real quality of their love. What was impossible to a self-centred egotist only a short time before becomes not only easier but also their greatest pleasure. It is exactly the same in the spiritual life. The exemplary behaviour, the extraordinary self discipline and the heroic sacrifices made by a person who begins to experience the love of God are not the results of an arrogant stoic trying to make themselves perfect. They are the actions of someone desperate to express their love in behaviour that could not be maintained for long without the love that sustains it. All the little pleasures and pastimes that were thought indispensable before suddenly become dispensable, and with the greatest of ease, virtues that were noticeable by their absence before, are born of the love that envelops them!
You see when the love of God strikes a human heart it strikes it as a simple ray of light strikes a prism. Just as that light is then diffused and transformed into all the colours of the spectrum, so the love of God is diffused and transformed into all the virtues and gifts that are needed as the believer seeks to acquire them. In short, first seek God and His Kingdom, which is love and everything else you want or desire will be given to you.