Lent is back. As Catholics, we are accustomed during this season to hear various exhortations to further conversion in our lives, especially through practicing the three traditional Lenten practices of prayer, asceticism, and almsgiving.

It seems to me that most of us are “comfortable” with the idea of prayer and almsgiving at any time of the year, yet asceticism is often something that we’d prefer to push to the side-lines. Perhaps then we feel heroic as we grudgingly give up sweets and refrain from adding sugar to our coffee for 40 days.

As such, we tend to merely tolerate the Church’s call to asceticism, rather than embrace it. Or when we do practice asceticism, it’s often done in the spirit of New Years’ resolutions that we like to connect with some personal “health goal” or “self-improvement” plan (“At least, I’ll lose weight, get healthier, be more productive, etc.”).

It’s apparent then that asceticism isn’t always that intuitive for us. Perhaps then it shouldn’t surprise us that many modern Christians have questioned, criticized, and abandoned the Church’s tradition and precedent of requiring some forms of asceticism.

Such Christians might point to Christ’s words to the Pharisees: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matthew 15:19-20).

The Pharisees certainly practiced strict disciplines that were meant to signify the need for purification. However, Christ’s words here reveal the true reason behind these external practices, namely, that the outer purification should serve as a tangible reminder for the need of inner purification—a purification of the heart. It is out of the heart that sin originates, and only subsequently does it become manifested through the external actions of the body.

So, why does the Church still encourage asceticism? Isn’t this an old Pharisaical relic? Again though, we would be wise to heed Christ’s words: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men.” (Matthew 6:16). Notice: “When you fast…” — not “if you fast.”

In other words, Christ takes for granted that His followers will fast. This then shows us how fasting and asceticism have been normative practices of the Christian’s life since the beginning. In fact, not only are we called to fast, but we are exhorted to do so without “disfiguring” our faces or for external motives.

Now we might consider whether St. John Paul’s message of the Theology of the Body can offer any new insights into the value of asceticism. Here again, many contemporary Christians might balk at such a suggestion. Isn’t asceticism a condemnation of the body’s dignity? Doesn’t this practice place the body as the enemy of the spirit?

I would suggest that St. John Paul’s message actually illumines beautifully the truth and dignity of the body in a way that will equip us to respond better to such accusations or misconstrued formulations of this ancient Christian tradition. St. John Paul reminds us that man was created in a beautiful harmony and unity between the body and spirit, and that the consequence of the Fall resulted in a “splitting” or fracture between man’s spirit and body.

However, God, the Author and Designer of the human person as a body-soul unity, desires to restore man to this original unity. Each of the sacraments as physical or embodied signs that bring about grace function to both heal and elevate our fallen human nature. The sacraments draw our attention to the way in which God works through the physical world in order to bring about redemption.

Thus, from St. John Paul’s insights, we can better see how asceticism is not about some effort to “escape” the body or to further “divide” man’s spirit from his body. Rather, the point of the physical disciplines and self-denial is to bring about a heightened conformity of the body to the spirit, such that man’s nature—both body and spirit—will flourish in their original harmonious unity that God intended for mankind.

Thus, the Church recognizes the practice of asceticism as being the necessary medicine and antidote to the unnatural consequence of sin, the “split” that came about from man’s defective and corrupted will. Asceticism therefore is meant only as a means to strengthen and restore man’s spirit and flesh back into their original conformity with one another.

As Christians, then, we know that asceticism is not an end unto itself. We don’t fast for the sake of fasting. We don’t deny ourselves because our bodies are evil. Rather, we recognize that God’s plan of creation involves a unity of body and spirit that can only come about as we dispose ourselves to God’s grace.

This openness to God’s grace is done in concert with the body, and therefore, it requires a bodily discipline. However, we can recognize that it is health, flourishing, and life—wholeness and holiness—that are the real ends being pursued through this self-denial.

As Christ both teaches and shows through His own example, the path of the Cross is necessary. However, the Cross doesn’t merely conclude in the tragedy of death. Rather, its ultimate destination is the glory of the Resurrection.

So, let’s not shy away from asceticism this Lent. Instead, may we remember how the Incarnation (God the Son taking on human nature), and the Paschal Mystery (the Passion, Death, and Resurrection) all point us to the beautiful and incredible reality that God desires to glorify us—to restore the unity of body and spirit.

Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.

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