Why asceticism? “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training . . .”

running the race beating the body

Another bit from the monasticism chapter of the forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

The concept of askesis came from the pagan philosophers, but it is thoroughly supported in Scripture. It is like the discipline of an athlete who, in the words of the Apostle Paul, must “beat his body”—endure some pain and deprivation—if he is to use that body to excel. Following from the phrase in the title of this post: I Cor 9:26-27 “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

If we are to excel spiritually, the church has always known, we must practice certain disciplines that keep our physical, emotional, and intellectual lives in check; some of these disciplines actually involve denying ourselves some of the good, God-given pleasures we might otherwise enjoy in those realms. Christians through the centuries have practiced such self-denial not as an end in itself, but in the interest of that higher goal of union with God.

If we need a reason to examine the Christian ascetic tradition, our syndromes of super-spiritualization and idolatrous materialism provide two good ones. In either case, by failing to see the spiritual significance of the embodied life, we become blind not only to that life’s sacramental nature but also to the seriousness of its temptations and distractions (and thus the need for ascetic discipline). I believe an examination of monasticism can lead us away both from hedonistic materialism and from quasi-gnostic super-spirituality, because ascetic discipline forces a degree of honesty about our “desiring life” that few moderns actually have.

One way to get at this dynamic is to observe that when our material comfort and security is seriously challenged, it can clarify our priorities and jolt us into a sense of greater aliveness. (Remember Samuel Johnson’s dictum, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”?)[1] Lewis put this principle in the mouth of the elder demon in Screwtape, when he counseled the younger not to be excited about war just because it created all sorts of lovely suffering, because war also has the “negative effect” of giving humans a clearer view of who they are and what really matters in their lives. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis portrays the impact of war, with its clear and present threat of death, like this:

“‘As long as we’re all together,’ said Mother Dimble. ‘It might be . . . no, I don’t mean anything heroic . . . it might be a nice way to die.’ And suddenly all their faces and voices were changed. They were laughing again, but it was a different kind of laughter. Their love for one another became intense. Each, looking on all the rest, thought, ‘I’m lucky to be here. I could die with these.’”

Then: “Something tonic and lusty and cheerily cold, like a sea breeze, was coming over them. There was no fear anywhere: the blood inside them flowed as if to a marching-song. . . . Under the immense weight of their obedience their wills stood up straight and untiring. . . . Eased of all fickleness and all protesting they stood: gay, light, nimble, and alert. They had outlived all anxieties; care was a word without meaning. To live meant to share in this processional pomp. Ransom knew, as a man knows when he touches iron, the clear, taut splendor of that celestial spirit which now flashed between them.”[2]

“The immense weight of obedience” involved in asceticism, too, can attune us more finely to our relationships, relativize our petty anxieties and cares, and help us live our earthly, human lives with more zest and appreciation.

[1] September 19, 1777, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 351.

[2] Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. ##.

One response to “Why asceticism? “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training . . .”

  1. Great post. Self-discipline is lacking in modern society, especially in the western world. People wrongly equate asceticism with suffering and hedonism with fun. The ascetic path is harder but much more rewarding. Even an atheist will benefit greatly with asceticism since it provides him with strength, courage, and bliss and contentment which is much better than the short, temporary sensual pleasure which results in misery and frustration in the end.

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