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The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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Consecrated LIfe: asceticism

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bosch, the temptation of saint Anthony

Asceticism refers to the practice of spiritual exercises like fasting, praying or almsgiving, performed for religious motives. Its object is generally the subordination of the self to the love of God. Asceticism may be compared to a form of martyrdom. The early Christian Church was indeed marked by the martyrdoms of the Apostles and by several sorts of persecutions. The following of Christ was equivalent to a self-detachment at the risk of death. It seems that, when the Christian Church settled and became tolerated, especially under the age of Constantine in early 4th century, the ideal of martyrdom moved on to the ideal of asceticism, thanks to the figure of Antony of Egypt. He is at the origin of asceticism as a feature for consecrated life.

Asceticism is rooted in the words of Jesus himself: whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Mt 10:38), or in the precepts concerning almsgiving and fasting: when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Mt 6:3) and when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret (Mt 6:17-18). This gives the principles of asceticism, which is the liberation necessary for an awakening of a true Christian self-conscious.

Above all, asceticism should never be considerer as as end in itself but rather as a tool to allow one to be fully receptive to the Word and love of God, and ultimately to be configured to Christ; as saint Paul says, it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).

However, asceticism itself is a gift of God's grace, who gives us strength and prepares our heart to fully receive his love. By practising ascetic exercises, we experience the need of God, his mercy and the reward which he has destined to us. In that sense, the beatitudes are guidelines for the ascetic life: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled … (Mt 5:1-12).

In taking on asceticism, consecrated people, as Benedict XVI said in his homily on February, 2nd 2010, are called in a special way to be witnesses of this mercy of the Lord. “Consecrated people experience God's grace, mercy and forgiveness not only for themselves but also for their brothers and sisters since they are called to carry in their hearts and prayers the anxieties and expectations of human beings, especially those who are far from God. Cloistered communities in particular, with their specific commitment to fidelity in "being with the Lord", in "standing beneath the Cross", often carry out this vicarious role, united to the Christ of the Passion, taking upon themselves the suffering and trials of others and offering all with joy for the salvation of the world”. This highlights the paradox of asceticism: it is in the end a matter of joy!

 

Br Jean-Baptiste Régis O.P.

Br Jean-Baptiste Régis O.P.


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