Tag Archives: asceticism

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.

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Christian asceticism (spiritual disciplines, self-denial): What’s up with that?


So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

In this second post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we come to the “inner logic” of asceticism. What is it about our experience as human beings that requires us to engage in “askesis,” which means “training,” in order to live well with and for God?

In the last post I reminded us of what we already know–that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

Now I want to add that this fact about us explains the behavioral strictures that modern American holiness and fundamentalist believers have insisted upon: no dancing, drinking, movies, and so forth. These have been misunderstood by critics as “legalism,” a term with Lutheran roots that means the attempt to earn God’s favor through rule-following (the sort of thing that Jesus scorned in the Pharisees). Rather, they have a singular purpose: Continue reading

Do our bodies lead us to God or keep us from God? Yes.


monks thwacking selves with boards - Monty PythonToday I begin posting bits of the “Monasticism and asceticism” chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. 

Why this is the hardest topic in this book for me, and maybe the most important one for American Christians today

There is no chapter in this book where I am “preaching to myself” more than this one. I fear that living in a place as comfortably materialistic and hedonistic as America makes our need for some form of ascetic discipline even more urgent than it has been in other ages and places. I feel the force of Neil Postman’s book title (if not the book itself), Amusing Ourselves to Death. How easy it is just to sit in front of the glowing screen, sipping the extra-large high-fructose corn syrup beverage, after the manner of the bloated inmates of the Buy ‘n’ Large corporation’s starliner Axiom in the movie Wall-E.

I have struggled to really “own” my faith, and part of that has been that I have had little clear sense of how the faith should be changing the way I work, do leisure, raise my family, and so forth. But mine is not just a failure of knowledge. It is a failure of commitment and discipline. So, honestly, I don’t want monasticism to hold any truth for me. I want it to be wrong. And I suspect this is true of many moderns who dismiss medieval monasticism without examining it—going no further than the Monty Python caricature of monks filing through the streets, intoning the missal passage Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem and thwacking themselves on the forehead with boards.[1] Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – Bernard of Clairvaux


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:

Bernard (1090-1153)

Probably best known today for hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” Bernard of Clairvaux was by any measure a formative figure in medieval devotion.

A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.

Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’” Continue reading

“Ticket to heaven”: C. S. Lewis’s debt to the Theologia Germanica on self-will, death, and heaven


Folks,

As I have for the past several years, I had the wonderful opportunity again this year to attend the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The event happened a couple of weeks ago, and again I was able to participate in a wonderful session on the works of a famous medievalist whom almost nobody thinks about as a medievalist: C. S. Lewis. In fact this year, the intrepid Joe Ricke of Taylor University crafted, and Crystal Kirgiss’s Purdue C S Lewis Society co-sponsored, an entire track of three sessions on “Lewis and the ‘Last Things.'”

My paper was (perhaps nominally) on the topic of heaven, as well as on death. Here it is, with work yet to be done on it before it finds published form, much-modified, in my upcoming book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. 

(This is copyright 2013 by me, Chris R. Armstrong, and posted here with the understanding that those reading it will not cite or quote it without express permission from the author.)

Chris Armstrong, International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, MI  May 2013 

“Ticket to heaven”: Lewis’s debt to the Theologia Germanica on self-will, death, and heaven

[This paper could perhaps more accurately have been titled: “For and against self-abandonment: C S Lewis’s uneasy relationship with the Pseudo-Dionysian teachings of the Theologia Germanica”]

C S Lewis was in a state of heightened awareness of his mortality when he sat down on Sept. 12th, 1938 to write to his friend Owen Barfield with the storm clouds of war gathering overhead. “My dear Barfield,” he wrote,

“What awful quantities of this sort of thing seem necessary to break us in, or, more correctly, to break us off. One thinks one has made some progress towards detachment . . . and begin[s] to realize, and to acquiesce in, the rightly precarious hold we have on all our natural loves, interests, and comforts: then when they are really shaken, at the very first breath of that wind, it turns out to have been all a sham, a field-day, blank cartridges.” (231) Continue reading

“Totalizing careers” have made hookup-culture advocates out of many young businesswomen


Been thinking a lot lately about the many, many ways faith and work speak to each other–or quite often, do not speak to each other where they should. Now another one comes up, in an article in First Things by Leah Libresco.

For decades, men’s overcommitment in their work lives has alienated them from their children, drained their marriages of life, incubated infidelity. The overworked, intimacy-challenged businessman has become a movie and TV cliche.

Libresco’s article and the Hanna Rosin article she points to shine a bright light on the modern female equivalent to this cliche. It is sobering, and it deserves reflection by Christians who care about faith-and-work issues.

Here’s the beginning of Libresco’s article, titled “Sad Secular Monks”:

In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin recently defended the hookup culture as essential to female success and equality. Given the pressure of a high-powered career, she claims, “an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.” In order to carve out time for work, women need the same option men have long enjoyed: “the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career.” Continue reading

Glimpses of Francis of Assisi, from Mark Galli


Saint Francis of assisi in his tomb

The following are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Mark Galli’s Francis of Assisi and His World (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today and former managing editor of Christian History, did his homework well, and this little book, like Chesterton’s biography of Francis, is full of insights. Galli does tend to find “legalism” in medieval monasticism, and has cautioned evangelicals about their “romance of the cloister.” But his understanding of the sacrament of penance (see below) is more nuanced than that of most Protestants. Continue reading

St Francis of Assisi: Redefining discipleship


I am fascinated by Francis.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2 – 1226) was, I think, a man in many ways well ahead of his time. Being human, he was not without his oddities and peccadilloes. But he drank deeply from the sorts of spiritual wells that have more recently animated the charismatic movement.

He took monasticism to its next logical step in living what Weber would later call a “worldly asceticism”: his model of Imitatio Christi understood as a vigorous and peripatetic service to the world transformed medieval religious life. The Franciscans and Dominicans both lived it out for centuries after his death, though often in ways that would have made poor Francis’s hair curl.

He recognized with laser clarity the toxicity of wealth and the heroic measures necessary to save oneself from pride.

What a saint was Francis! Still today I am challenged every time I read of his life.

All of this I was beginning to discover in 1994, at age 31, as I moved on from both my Christian tutelage in the charismatic movement and my secular vocation in corporate communications to the full-time study of church history Continue reading

The evangelical patient awaits a medieval transfusion


The Summer of Research has given way to the Summer of Writing, issuing in the first halting words of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants (Baker Books, forthcoming). Here are some initial, gut-level thoughts–rough and unrevised:

I write this book not as an expert but as a pilgrim. The subject is medieval faith, but academically I am an Americanist. I write for the American evangelical Protestant church(es) in a time of intense pain and confusion. Battered by modernity, we have tried in turn rational apologetic, pragmatic ecclesiology, charismatic experience, and postmodern experimentation. None of these has proved lasting.

The rationalism of modern apologetics has collapsed as the questions of the unchurched have turned away from doctrine and the agonies of the churched have centered on spirituality and practice rather than belief.

The pragmatism of the church growth specialists has dissolved, as it always has, as its shallow spirituality has become evident.[1]

The experientialism of the charismatic movement seems often to have failed to build lasting, faithful, discipled churches as worshippers have bounced from one high to the next.

The postmodernisms of some emerging Christians seem already to be veering into heresy.[2] Continue reading

G. K. Chesterton argues for the truth of Christianity . . . from asceticism


G. K. Chesterton, “Christianity and Rationalism” (1904, The Clarion), G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 373 – 380.

The following argument for the truth of Christianity comes from the Blatchford controversies, a civil exchange between anti- and pro-Christians in the pages of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, 1904, from which G. K. Chesterton’s contributions have been culled and published in vol. 1 of his Collected Works:

“The Secularist says that Christianity has [376] been a gloomy and ascetic thing, and points to the procession of austere or ferocious saints who have given up home and happiness and macerated health and sex. But it never seems to occur to him that the very oddity and completeness of these men’s surrender make it look very much as if there were really something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves. They gave up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy. They may have been mad; but it looks as if there really were such a pleasure. They gave up all human experiences for the sake of one superhuman experience. They may have been wicked, but it looks as if there were such an experience.” (375 – 6) Continue reading