Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fasting and Christian asceticism


For the last week, I’ve been wracking my brain to think of a beginning-of-Lent post that wouldn’t: a) duplicate the reflection on repentance I wrote last year; and b) cover the same ground other Catholic bloggers are covering. Believe it or not, I do strive for some originality.

However, some questions and challenges continue to crop up, no matter how many times Catholic apologists respond to them. On one blog or another, you’ll come across some ex-Catholic or Evangelical type who’ll throw down a bunch of Bible “proof texts” to show that some practice is non-Scriptural. Usually the texts will bear on the question; sometimes, about half the quotations will be condemnations of the unbeliever and the sinner ... interesting but irrelevant.

The main error with the “Show me from the Bible” challenge is that you can’t show from the Bible that everything has to be in the Bible, nor can you demonstrate from Scripture that only what’s in Scripture is binding on Christian conscience. But another problem with sola scriptura arguments is the tendency to pick one or two verses which seem to support one’s position, usually out of their proper context, and ignore a whole host of other references which ought to force the person to re-evaluate the inference.

Such is the case with Lenten fasting and abstinence. Here the Evangelical is likely to whip out this line from St. Paul: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, … who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim 4:1, 3). Hah! Take that, you carp-crunching papist!


First, let’s put this statement into historical context:

In Colossians 2:8, we read, “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” We usually see this line as a proof text against tradition, although the fact that tradition is limited here by the adjective human indicates that there are traditions which aren’t merely human.

The historical value of the verse, however, is in the italics referring to the “elemental spirits of the universe”. At the time this letter was written, the Church wasn’t more than twenty-five or thirty years old; however, Gnosticism was already beginning to show its ugly, corrupting face.

Gnosticism is thought to have arisen originally in Persia some time after the invasion of Cyrus in 539 BC. A highly syncretic system capable of adopting and adapting elements from other religions, it stressed the possession of an esoteric knowledge (gnosis) as the key to salvation. Many variants of Gnostic thought relied heavily on intermediate spirits, angels and beings known as devas; Jesus was often claimed to be such a deva.

The one point of Gnosticism which relates here is its emphasis on the ultimate evil of material being. “This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence—this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.”[1]

Christian asceticism isn’t based on such a life-denying pessimism. Rather, it acts as a corrective to excessive emphasis on worldly pleasure while still indirectly affirming the goodness of God’s creation. Jesus tells us that some people are incapable of marriage (literally eunochoi, “eunuchs”) “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, and that those who can practice such restraint should (Mt 19:12). Likewise, St. Paul advocates such a detachment:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other (1 Cor 6:12-13).

Fasting is part of our Jewish inheritance. In 2 Samuel 12:15-23, we see that David fasted in the hope that the Lord, seeing the depths of his repentance, would spare his first child by Bathsheba. In Daniel 10:2-3, we see that the prophet fasted in mourning for three weeks: “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all for the full three weeks.” And Jesus told the Pharisees that his disciples would fast after he was gone (Mt 9:15). 1 Timothy 4:1-3, then, isn't against fasting as a personal or occasional discipline but as a universal and permanent requirement.

To give up what we don’t esteem is hardly a sacrifice: no known religion includes a rite in which the believers offer their god a dog turd. We give things up precisely because they are good. But no heaping of pleasures upon pleasures will ever suffice to fill the “God-shaped hole in our souls”. And, as we see from the public horror show provided by Charlie Sheen, pleasure pursued too far can turn to self-destruction.

In an age where commercial interests are constantly pushing us to spend tomorrow’s income on today’s self-indulgence, asceticism is a radical challenge and a sign of contradiction. For all things pass, and today’s feast does not cure tomorrow’s hunger, nor does tonight’s celebration of life stay the eventual coming of death.

Lent isn’t just about repentance. It’s also a reminder that life isn’t “all about me”, that we can never enter into a fully loving relationship with God and other people so long as we’re centered on pleasing ourselves. We deny ourselves to die to ourselves, so we can live in Christ for others.

Forty days of doing without, in a year of 365 days, isn’t asking much. For some people, it isn’t asking enough. But it’s a start.


[1] Arendzen, J. (1909),  “Gnosticism”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 8, 2011 from New Advent.