For asceticism to be authentic, we must rid ourselves of the notion that Christianity is anti-body. This is simply not true. A great principle that can help us recapture an authentic Christianity understanding of the human body can be found in Eastern Christianity. For them, the foundation for a true asceticism is the cultivation of what they call dispassion or stillness. Thus, our intentional efforts consist in the interior watchfulness needed to be attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and this interior vigilance is attained by the mind and body working together.
Two essential elements in attaining this harmony is fasting and exercise. In the minds of many, these two practices seem to be polar opposites. Fasting, many think, involves a kind of denial of the body and its needs, while exercise is intended to nourish and strengthen. However, the two are actually complementary. For a renewal in asceticism we must recognize the role that both play in cultivating stillness.
We need new asceticism; we need a renewal in an understanding of importance of the body in a balanced spirituality. This renewal may be “new” in its perspective, but that does not mean that it is a rupture with the Catholic Tradition. Rather, we must allow the riches of the Christian tradition, both East and West, to grow and develop in order to meet the demands of 21st Century America.
Monastic spirituality has much to offer us in our quest. In the traditional monastic wisdom, manual labor played a role very similar to that of exercise. Regular activities such as farming and building were understood as an integral part of monastic formation. They worked in tandem with that of fasting, which was understood as a denial of food for the sake of educating the passions. Each represented different ways of engaging the body so as to give the monk the freedom needed to pray. Until the body is brought under the gentle guidance of reason, contemplation can be quite allusive.
Thus, in our contemporary setting, exercise must be understood as an integral part of the spiritual life. Through stretching, strengthening, and cardio-vascular exercise, one is able to work out one’s stress and to give the body the necessary work to maintain equilibrium. The goal is not to have the perfect body or the ideal weight, but to cultivate that stillness which makes us available to God and neighbor. Today, let us embraced this renewed vision of asceticism.