Ascesis

Lovely word. I read Sean Salai’s interview of film critic Steven Greydanus. There the interviewee sermonized on Lenten discipline:

I think the official ascesis of the Latin Church today, what we call fasting and abstinence, is pitifully lax. Meatless Fridays in Lent, only two “fasting” days annually during which you can still eat three times a day, and an hour “fast” before communion, which barely counts. It’s tokenism, even legalism.

Perhaps. If I can give up sweets so easily perhaps that is merely a token. And if I take some dollop of pride in it, comparing myself to others, then perhaps I’ve legally performed ascesis, but I’ve possibly missed the mark.

Latin Catholics badly need a renewal in serious ascesis. A praxis that costs little is worth little. I’m not saying I relish the idea of going quasi-vegan for six weeks! Frankly, Eastern ascesis scares me. But each year I try to get a little closer, to give up one more thing.

I think I was somewhat relieved to read this. Is the point of discipline to match or outdo a neighbor? Or is there some interior renewal that accompanies the practice when we transcend tokenism and legalism.

And more, I’ve always been a skeptic on those who lament the loosening of Lenten discipline. Some critics don’t even practice the old ways themselves. I’d like to ask, what are you waiting for? And I wonder if it’s not just another elder sibling ranting, “Why is Father so lenient with him?!”

In agrarian cultures of history, the weeks before Spring were always lean times. That, of necessity, especially when Europe was colder and growing seasons shorter and storage methods primitive. Wine and beer might have been the only reliable alternative to snowmelt. And who wants to have sex only to bring a hungry mouth into the community just when it’s time to batten down the hatches for a long, cold winter?

Still, if Roman Catholicism were to institute more rigor in Lent, maybe there are new places to explore. If the Orthodox are doing meat, eggs, and dairy, maybe the West could top that: sugar, alcohol, and tobacco.

Seriously, my suggestion for those who long for ascesis is to consult with a spiritual director, preferably someone who knows us well. What disciplines are good to begin in Lent and to continue beyond as a mark of personal renewal? What other practices can be discontinued temporarily so as to root us in the deeper meaning of a season that’s more about internal reform than late winter rations?

By the way, don’t forget that Saturday is an opportunity to fast. It doesn’t have to be a token. It’s not legally required in the strict sense. But it is a good practice nonetheless.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Holy Week, Lent and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ascesis

  1. Liam says:

    It’s not been my Lent for voluntary ascesis. I most definitely went absolute minimalist this wintery Lent.

  2. Melody says:

    “…I’ve always been a skeptic on those who lament the loosening of Lenten discipline.” Me too. I think that those who feel that the Latin Church is just a bunch of wussies should go for it and fast to their heart’s content. Maybe they could emulate the Irish “black fast” on Good Friday. I think you are right that people of the past most likely made a virtue of a necessity. The logic of raising the bar if people aren’t doing such a great job of observing the requirements already in place escapes me. It reminds me of an article by a syndicated columnist in our diocesan paper who was lamenting the poor holy-day-of-obligation turnout for Mass. His solution was that we needed to have more holy days of obligation because we are slacking off.

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