Tag Archives: asceticism

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part I


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Well, I have my computer back, fixed and ready to go again. So, as we cruise down the home stretch of the monasticism chapter from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: Explorations with C S Lewis, we come to a few reasons modern Christians would do well to learn from the medieval monastics:

We need something like monasticism because we are physical beings who need a holistic spiritual discipline

Against the stereotypes, Christian asceticism still holds the body to be a good thing – and Benedict’s Rule demonstrates this, for example, in its close attention to the needs of a sick monk, who should be given more food and more sleep, and of course its strong insistence on hospitality to the stranger and the guest.

We’re talking about spiritual dieting here. And diets that work still allow you to eat things you like, but in a more controlled manner. Christian asceticism is spiritual dieting, not spiritual anorexia. Anorexia is a complete construction of food as evil and disgusting, and an aversion to food. Monks did not believe that marriage and procreation (for example) were evil. They believed that by doing without them, they could train themselves toward a higher good. Continue reading

Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery


girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Continue reading

C S Lewis’s dawning asceticism: “Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration”


monastic arches

In the last post, as I began to unpack monasticism and asceticism with C S Lewis’s help, I took a passage from his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength as a window into the way that war, by shaking all our self-interests and focusing us on a higher goal, can give us a new vision and focus for life. I concluded, drawing from a phrase of Lewis’ in that book: “‘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.” Now, to continue:

Why monasticism?

This focusing function may be a helpful general principle about asceticism. But we may fairly ask: “What makes us think the particular ascetic modes of monasticism have any answers on our modern problems? They’re so . . . medieval! Stone cloisters, hard beds, celibacy, rising at ungodly hours to chant Psalms in Latin? Really? This is the balm for our ills?”

Lewis plumbs the depths of self

Lewis, in the year leading up to his conversion, struggled mightily with his “flesh” – and even more with spiritual pride, a sin the monastic fathers unanimously agreed was among the worst, and especially tending to beset those making efforts in their lives to achieve spiritual progress.

From early on, as he struggled toward conversion, Lewis also appreciated the asceticism of the Middle Ages. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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