What makes Christian Asceticism Unique?

edited June 2014 in Faith Issues
Asceticism therefore involves the idea of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. Since there are a large number of reasons for which one might submit to a discipline, I have no objection to a large number of uses for the word asceticism. When an athlete is placed under discipline in order to train for a prize, it is athletic asceticism; when a person disciplines excessive consumption of goods for the sake of distributive justice it might be called moral asceticism; when a person refrains from those same goods during wartime, it may be called patriotic asceticism; when a child learns to discipline wants and outbursts of frustration, that self-discipline may also be said to have an ascetical quality about it. In this way, different types of asceticism could be identified by different formal causes...It is easy to imagine religious causes of asceticism, too. Religious asceticism would be a disciplined endeavor to find God. The existence of pre-Christian and extra-Christian asceticism is a phenomenological fact (just like the existence of pre-Christian and extra-Christian religion is a phenomenological fact). But I shall maintain that liturgical asceticism is different from both moral asceticism and religious asceticism, and distinguish them not so much by the practices employed, but by the cause and end to which they are employed. That is exactly why two words (liturgical and asceticism) are required to name the single, simple reality liturgical asceticism. It is a theological category, not a moral, civic, religious, or athletic one....

Christianity shares many religious practices with the whole of humanity. This is a corollary of believing that grace perfects nature, and there is no alarm in this admission: It is, in fact, a sign of the solidarity and compatibility of Christianity with human nature. Perhaps no one understood this better than G. K. Chesterton, whose writings often contained an apology for the rather pagan quality of certain Catholic acts. For example, when critics of Catholicism complained that “ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin,” Chesterton replied, “they might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet.” Neither do I deny that fasting, vigils, and solitude were practiced by religious persons before they were practiced by Christians. The Church did not create asceticism, and I do not deny that there were ascetics before there were Christians. In fact, liturgical asceticism does possess this religious dimension, meaning by “religion” what Archimandrite Boniface Luykx meant when he called it “making a path for God to come to you by.”

....Chesterton also pointed out modernity's tendency to overlook content when noticing similar forms, a tendency which he said led ethical societies and parliaments of religion to conclude that “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” Chesterton contradicts this. “It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach...They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught.” Similarly, I will suppose that liturgical asceticism and religious asceticism agree in their machinery: They will use the same external methods of fasting and celibacy. But liturgical asceticism will differ from religious asceticism in its arche and telos (origin and end, principle and purpose). Not all asceticism is liturgical, any more than all worship is Christian; but liturgical asceticism does exist, as does liturgical worship. Jeremy Driscoll affirms this in Evagrius who recorded the understanding of the Desert Fathers: “Evagrius himself is witness ... to how at base this monastic heritage has a distinctive Christian face which distinguishes it from all other traditions of spiritual exercises, from other cultural manifestations of monasticism. This distinctive face, again, is the face of the incarnate Lord who is with the monk in every stage of his exercises...” Every mystery of the Church—its sacraments, its laws, its hierarchy, its exercises, its ministry—exists for the sole purpose of being a means to participate in the mystery of Christ. Therein lies the difference between Christian asceticism and other religious asceticism. What makes it liturgical asceticism is the fact that it is a means of participating in Christ. There is a natural virtue of moral discipline that might lead a person to make ascetical experiments in goodness or justice or humility before Almighty God, but I am speaking of a discipline that is required to become a liturgist in Christ's body. Asceticism is requisite to being a liturgist and to becoming a liturgical theologian.

Dr David Fagerberg


  • edited July 2014
    Here's another nice quote from Dr David Fagerberg from "A Century of Consequences" (The Century format presents complementary angles of an antinomy by simply placing them side by side, without one diluting the other into pink.) :

    80. To do liturgical asceticism one must become an ascetic, even if not of the monastic variety. To do liturgical theology, one must become a theologian, even if not of the academic variety.
    81. John Climacus also recommends, “Control your appetites before they control you.” If liturgy is doing the world the way it was meant to be done, then I must keep control of my appetites. In order to be a liturgist, I must be an ascetic.
    82. Christian asceticism, then, is not masochism, not hatred of the world, not just for monks or priests, not just expressed by celibacy, and not beating one’s head against the wall because it feels good when one stops. Christian asceticism is keeping control of the appetites. That is what Evagrius of Pontus understood by apatheia: controlling your appetite, keeping custody of the heart’s passions. And Cassian translated it as puritas cordis (purity of heart), which philosophers from Augustine to Petrarch to Kierkegaard have known means to will one thing.
    83. The cause of Christian asceticism—the motive and reason and goal of Christian asceticism—is told by the good and humble Mare, Hwin, in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicle, The Horse and His Boy. When Hwin met Aslan for the first time, she shook all over as she trotted up to the Lion. “‘Please,’ she said, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.’”
    84. Augustine pictures Christ saying to the communicant: “I am your food, but instead of my being changed into you, it is you who shall be transformed into me.” In the normal digestive system of the human body, a piece of bread is changed into me, my energy, my muscle and bone. In the sacramental digestive system of the body of Christ, the bread we eat turns us into His body. Our mother is right when she says you are what you eat.
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