If you have heard the term asceticism, chances are you have thought about it in terms of fasting and penance. What might come to mind are Monks and Religious who would do lengthy fasts and make great sacrifices for the love of Christ. You may have heard about the practices of great Saints who would wear sack-cloth or sleep on the floor. While all of this is true and has its place within the Church, there can be a tendency to put asceticism into a category of things “Saints do, but which us ordinary people don’t have to do.”
The truth is that all of us are called to practice asceticism. The reality is that suffering is a part of ordinary life. In my current job as a seminarian, studying and writing papers involves a lot of suffering. All joking aside, there is real dying to self that goes along with learning. In addition, parents often experience discomfort and stress in order to give of themselves in parenting. This involves both great and little sacrifices. I would argue that pretty much anything worth doing involves a level of suffering.
We typically think of suffering in only the most extreme and obvious cases. We think of the anguish of dealing with addiction or hurt in the family. We think of the grief of death and illness, or we think about the pain of injury and trial. These are important ways in which we suffer, but I would argue that we often overlook the everyday trials. We don’t see how each day there are moments of discomfort and agitation. Often when dealing with these discomforts, we fail to see them as opportunities of participating in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
The true Spirit of Asceticism is that in the midst of discomfort and suffering, we can still participate in the unconditional love of Christ. Fasting is good, but if you get grumpy and lose sight of its purpose, it can become a burden. In a similar way, our daily trials can either be a source of blessings or a constant burden. Problems and difficulties can either weigh us down, or teach us how to love.
The problem is that we are attached to sin. Our attachments to sin keep us from having the mind and heart of Christ. To be rid of these attachments, we must undergo purgation in either this world or the next. We must be purged of all those disorders which keep us from living in the fullness of that image which was restored in our Baptism. At Baptism, we were washed of the disorder of original sin and restored to friendship with Christ. The effects of sin, however, remained and because of those effects, we often sin through our own fault and form habits which prevent us from our call to holiness.
To undo those habits, we need to become everyday Ascetics. We need to learn to do little acts of daily fasting, of denying our unruly passions, so that we can learn to cooperate with God’s grace. Our interior life needs to be educated, not through repression, but rather through guidance and self-mastery. For us, this means that we need to start facing our daily discomforts with the zeal of the Saints. These daily sacrifices need to become moments where we allow God’s transformative love to break into our lives.