During Lent, the Church asks the faithful to do penance or, in technical terms, practice “asceticism”, which originates from the Greek word “askesis”, which means “exercise”. The dictionary defines asceticism as a “spiritual effort or excercise in the pursuit of virtue in order to grow in Christian perfection.” This is the fight between the flesh and the spirit mentioned by St. Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians, quoted by Archbishop Aupetit of Paris in his homily of February 24, 2019 (see page 8).
Catholic songwriter Mark Mallett publishes a spiritual blog on the web to defend the Church and Pope Francis. Here is one of his meditations on Lent, entitled “Asceticism in the City”1:
HOW can we, as Christians, live in this world without being consumed by it? How can we remain pure of heart in a generation that is immersed in impurity? How can we become holy in an era of unholiness?
Last year, there were two very strong words on my heart that I want to continue to augment. The first is an invitation from Jesus to “Come away with Me into the desert”. The second word expanded on this: a call to become like the “Desert Fathers”—those men who fled the temptations of the world into the solitude of the desert in order to safeguard their spiritual life. Their flight into the wilderness formed the basis of Western monasticism and a new way of combining work and prayer. Today, I believe that those who “come away” with Jesus at this time will be forming the foundations of a “new and divine holiness” in the coming era.
Another way to state this invitation is to “come out of Babylon“, out of the powerful grip of technology, mindless entertainment, and consumerism that fills our souls with temporal pleasure, but ultimately leaves them empty and insatiated.
“Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Rev 18:4-5)
If this sounds immediately overwhelming, then read on. Because this spiritual work will primarily be that of the Blessed Mother and the Holy Spirit. What is required of us is our “yes”, a fiat where we begin to apply ourselves to some simple ascetical practices.
Asceticism is a concept that makes no sense to our culture, which has been nourished at the sallow breasts of atheism and materialism. For if all we have is the here and now, why would one exercise self-control other than, perhaps, to remain out of prison or at the very least, to maintain one’s selfish pursuits?
But Judaeo-Christian teaching has two important revelations. The first is that created things are deemed “good” by the Creator Himself: “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.” (Gen 1:31)
The second is that these temporal goods must not become gods: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven…” (Matt 6:19-20)
This is all to say that the Christian perspective of creation, of the fruit of man’s hands, and of his body and sexuality is that they are essentially good. (...)On the other hand is a temptation to “softness”, to the constant pursuit of comfort and pleasure, thus becoming a slave to the appetites of the flesh and dull to the Spirit of God. For as St. Paul reminds us:
“Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Rom 8:5-6)
Thus, there is a balance we must find. Christianity is not simply “the way of the Cross” without the Resurrection, nor vice versa. It is not pure banquet without fasting, nor fasting without delight. It is essentially setting one’s eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven, always putting God and neighbour first. And it is precisely in the self-denial this requires that we begin to attain the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
You can begin to experience Heaven now the more you entrust yourself to Jesus. You can begin to taste the beatitude of Paradise the more you give of yourself. You can begin to taste the fruits of the Kingdom the more you resist the temptations of the flesh.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24-25)
That is, Resurrection comes by way of the Cross—the way of the ascetic.
The question is how we can live faithfully in contemporary society surrounded by so many goods, so many intrigues, technological advancements, comforts and pleasures? The answer today, at this hour, is in some ways not too unlike the Desert Fathers who literally fled the world into caves and solitudes. But how does one do this in the city? How does one do this within the context of family, soccer clubs, and the workplace?
Maybe we need to ask the question how Jesus entered pagan Roman times, dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and yet remaining “without sin.” (cf. Heb 4:15) Well, as Our Lord said, it is a matter of the “heart”—where one sets his eyes: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light.” (Matt 6:22)
And so, here are ten simple ways that you and I can refocus our spiritual and physical eyes, and become ascetics in the city.
I. Begin each morning in prayer, placing yourself in the arms, providence, and protection of the Father.
“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…” (Matt 6:33)
II. Seek to serve those whom God has placed in your care: your children, spouse, your co-workers, students, staff, etc. placing their interests above your own.
“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)
III. Be content with what you have, relying on the Father for all your needs.
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor forsake you.’” (Heb 13:5)
IV. Entrust yourself to Mary, as John did beneath the Cross, so that she may mother you as the Mediatrix of grace that flows from the Heart of Jesus.
“And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:27)
“This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation… Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 969
V. Pray at all times, which is to remain on the Vine, who is Jesus.
“Pray always without becoming weary… Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer… Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving… Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (Luke 18:1, Rom 12:12, Col 4:2, 1 Thess 5:16-18)
VI. Control your tongue; be silent unless you need to speak.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain… Avoid profane, idle talk, for such people will become more and more godless… no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving.” (James 1:26, 2 Tim 2:16, Eph 5:4)
VII. Do not befriend your appetites. Give your body what it needs, and no more.
“I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:27)
VIII. Make idle time count by giving your time and attention to others, or filling your mind and heart with Scripture, spiritual reading or other goodness.
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:5-8)
IX. Resist curiosity: keep custody of your eyes, protecting the purity of your heart.
“Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)
X. End your day in prayer with a brief examination of conscience, asking forgiveness where you have sinned, and entrusting your life again to the Father.
“If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” (1 John 1:9)
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What is our ultimate goal? It is to see God. The more of Him we see, the more we will become like Him. The way to see God is to make your heart more and more pure. For as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (cf. Matt 5:8) To become an ascetic in the city, then, is to keep oneself free from sin, all the while loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, and one’s neighbour as oneself.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world… We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” (James 1:27, 1 John 3:2-3)
Print these ten steps out. Keep them with you. Post them on the wall. Do them, and by God’s grace, you will become the beginning of a new era. v