It's an ancient practice that makes us better people and more in love with God.
It’s that time again, friends. We’re now into the Lenten season, making our small sacrifices and preparing for Easter. It’s an ancient practice known as asceticism.
Some of the saints we know and love were highly accomplished ascetics and often took the practice to almost unimaginable extremes. St. Simeon the Stylite spent 37 years sitting on top of a pillar. St. Jerome would strike his chest with rocks. St. Thomas Becket would wear a rough garment known as a hair shirt that constantly irritated his skin. Me? I’m just trying to pray a bit more and eat a bit less. A great ascetic I am not.
The greatest of the ascetics was St. Francis of Assisi, who refused to purchase even a single item of clothing for himself. He ended up wearing an old brown robe that was so patched up with donated scraps of fabric that it may not have had any original material left in it. He never wore shoes. He went without food for extreme lengths of time, and when he did eat it was only leftovers he begged from passersby.
Each year Catholics are encouraged during Lent to take a cue from Francis and practice doing with less. It’s not only a Catholic habit, either. Popular books and television shows about minimalism preach greater simplicity and the value to doing without. When it comes to luxuries, there is, of course, also the limiting factor of our credit score and income. We are constrained by basic economics and learn to put certain dreams aside as unattainable luxuries. You and I probably won’t own our own professional sports teams or private islands. We adapt to what we have, count our blessings, and learn to be happy.
I often wonder about the mystery of why people who have less seem to be just as satisfied with their lives as those who have more. In fact, those who have more seem to be the unhappiest among us, perhaps because they’ve never learned the value of asceticism. It’s counter-intuitive, but people who make peace with not possessing a certain luxury always end up benefiting emotionally and spiritually from the deprivation.
I’ll share with you a personal example, a (very) small act of asceticism that has made me happier: All my life, I’ve been a night owl. I like to stay up late and read, paint, or catch one of the late shows on television. Over the years, I was noticing that those late hours were less about creativity and reading and more dedicated to television viewing. I was wasting hours of my day. So I decided to become an early riser and began waking up at 6 a.m., sometimes much earlier. Now, I fall asleep earlier and, when I rise, make a cup of coffee and read a book for an hour before the busyness of the day carries me off. I’ve come to love this hour of quietude, am reading more than ever, and am excited to wake up each morning. This sacrifice of waking up earlier than I initially wanted to — small is as it is — has vastly improved my day. It no longer feels to me like a sacrifice at all.
Asceticism isn’t meant to harm us. Quite the opposite — it is restorative. Fasting isn’t meant to damage our bodies and giving up other luxuries isn’t meant to make us miserable. God does not want us to be sad, and it isn’t a sign of our devotion to destroy our health. When we think of St. Francis — the greatest of all ascetics — we don’t picture a gloomy, depressed man. Not at all — Francis is famous for his joy. Each sacrifice he gave to God made him happier.
When I talk to my friends about the Lenten sacrifices they make, they’re always honest about how difficult it can be, and even about how sometimes they stumble and fail to keep the promise they made at the beginning of Lent when expectations were more ambitious. They also express how grateful they are that they attempted to live with less and how much they’ve grown from the effort. This is because the effort itself helps set us free. We are more than our physical possessions, more than our material comforts, more than our desires. We don’t see that until we live without them for a period of time and realize that we don’t need them as much as we thought we did.
Most of all, asceticism makes room in our hearts for joy and love. Why was St. Francis so happy? G.K. Chesterton says that Francis was a man in love; “He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men … In such a romance there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between his praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat …”
Consider the people you love – spouse, children, parents, friends. We practice asceticism with each and every one of them. A married couple shares space, curbs individual desires, and thinks of the other first. A parent suffers for a child, goes to watch them in an endless round of sporting events and dance recitals, defers vacations and material luxuries. We spend time caring for aging parents, driving them to the doctor, and checking in on them.
We give so much of ourselves – time, energy, personal autonomy — it’s all joy. No one counts these costs, because the small sacrifices are more than made up for by the presence of someone we love. We give up a lesser good for a greater good. It’s the same with Lenten sacrifices, only we do it for love of God. It’s all joy.