Why Men Need Asceticism to Grow in Holiness
Almost universally, the first men to attempt Exodus were completely astounded at how “enslaved” they were to their passions (desires or appetites). Rarely, especially as men, do we ever see the need to deny anything to ourselves; we take and use to our own advantage nearly anything we want. This can be lethal! St. Paul warned the Christians in Galatia: “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (5:17). So, the Church wisely teaches, “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails asceticism and mortification…” (2015).
Essentially, asceticism is the spiritual discipline whereby a man practices self-denial, self- restraint and self-mortification, and, for those who desire greater growth, a more rigorous self-denial, more extreme abstinence, and increased austerity – all for the purpose of growing in personal freedom. Of course, naysayers are plentiful and we will find many who will discourage the practice of asceticism as “unenlightened” or “mediaeval” – an outdated practice that subverts man as a depraved individual who is required to torture himself to overcome his sin and have a chance at heaven. Not so! Asceticism has the capacity to bring blessed freedom to the life of a man!
The masters of asceticism were the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century. These men (and women) literally stood at the edge of the desert, stripped themselves of everything including clothing, and entered into the desert to do battle – first with themselves and then with Satan who could no longer control them through sex, food, material goods, etc. Their lives were inspiring and filled with mystery. Their spiritual combat moved “out into the open” when Satan was deprived of the many distractions and enticements available to man. But to us modern men, their fasts, penances, self-denial, and prayer nearly sound like brutality! We are repulsed by such practices!
A young man came to me once seeking “coaching” of sorts as he considered himself “effeminate” and had difficulty relating to men. After observing his behavior for a week or so, it was obvious he had misdiagnosed his problem. He was not effeminate… he was soft. His family was affluent and he had no idea how pampered and soft he had become.
“Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God,” St. John of the Cross emphatically taught, “except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”
God richly rewards those who practice asceticism. When a man empties himself of the modern nonsense that preoccupies his life, it is God who resolutely meets him in that moment. “Either God and His Kingdom,” John Paul II once nearly shouted to his audience, “or wealth, power, and success!” To give up “the things of this world” is to receive in exchange a blessed freedom without which we cannot love our wives, our children, our neighbor, or, yes, even our God.
Witness the intensity of God’s wrath when he shouts, “Let my son go that he may love me!” (Exodus 4:23), for, as we must know, whatever we are attached to in this life cruelly takes us away from the love of our Father. Do not be afraid!