“A man can never learn what divine power is while he abides in comfort and spacious living.” (Saint Isaac of Syria).
Asceticism is the practice of depriving oneself of pleasure – especially pleasure associated with the senses, like sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – so as to attain deeper spiritual goals. In other words asceticism is about emptying oneself of what is needless and filling oneself with what is needed…
An ascetic would practice fasting, abstain from meat and rich food, deprive themselves of physical comforts like warmth in winter and coolness in summer, and generally do things to make their lives more difficult rather than easier, like living in poverty and avoiding wealth and comfort.
Some of the great Saints were ascetics.
Saint Charbel Maklouf was a 19th century Maronite Catholic monk who lived alone in the mountains of Lebanon. He lived a small, poor and simple life. Saint Charbel ate one small meal of potato and herbs each day. He wore a simple habit and sandals in summer AND winter (even in the snow). He slept on a wooden plank with a log for a pillow and generally lived in utter poverty. In fact, Saint Charbel was so keen to deny himself pleasure that on the rare occasions when he travelled past his home village, he refused to stop and greet his family (or his mother) because he wished to sacrifice the pleasure that would bring for the salvation of souls…
And as his reward, Saint Charbel died while he was celebrating holy Mass during the Consecration – holding the Blessed Sacrament in his hands. In other words, because he emptied himself and his life of all things, God filled his hands with GOD HIMSELF and Saint Charbel died literally in the hands of Our Blessed Lord!
And who did this Saint base his life upon?
Well, he based it upon the greatest of all the ascetics – Christ Himself!
I can imagine Christ on that Cross – His naked body exposed to the world – for He was stripped naked before He was killed.
I can picture how He looked hanging from that tree… I can see how terribly thin and skeletal He was. He was – after all – an ascetic – the perfect ascetic in fact.
You see, Christ was a Man who practiced much fasting and abstinence – I have only to think of His forty days in the desert to remember that. “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards was hungry.” (Matthew 4:1-11).
When Christ travelled, He travelled with nothing, and if He did receive anything along the way, He gave it away – in fact He gave everything away to the poor while He lived – so that, at the moment of His Death, He had only His own BODY and His own BLOOD to give away for love of us!
After all, Christ is no hypocrite! He would not tell His disciples to leave everything behind and follow Him and to give everything away to the poor and then hoard treasures of His own. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me…’” (Matthew 16:24).
And there is something very important to understand in reflecting on this asceticism of Christ – as there is always something important to understand in reflecting on ANY PART of Christ’s life…
And it is simply this… At the moment of my death, I must be like my Beloved. For my Beloved had a HOLY DEATH.
When Christ died, He was naked, homeless and (almost) entirely alone. He died with NO-THING… And His Death was PERFECT. That is how my Beloved was at the moment of His death!
He was completely and utterly empty – empty of things, empty of food and drink (for He had not consumed anything for days), empty of honours and empty even of blood – because He had shed all of His blood even to the last drop, for love of me and for love of you too…
And that is what asceticism is all about! It is about shedding all the unnecessary things in this life that we do not need, so that we – like my Beloved – are EMPTIED OUT to be prepared for a HOLY DEATH.
And – though I live in the world – and work and shop and socialise and engage, it occurs to me that the words of the seventh century monk, Saint Isaac of Syria, are terribly terribly true… “A man can never learn what divine power is while he abides in comfort and spacious living.”
And with this in mind, I have a thought now and then for what I can empty out of my own life… For there is much comfort here…
For with prayer, I stand on Holy Ground where everything is clear. Here. At the Foot of the Cross.