ASCETICISM (Greek ’ασκησις [askesis]—practice, formation]—actions that through philosophical difficulty and spiritual effort are intended to lead to moral perfection (the mastery of emotions, passions, and evil desires), and then to union with God (or a deity).
Culture and religion influence how people understand asceticism. There is an essential difference between the Catholic understanding and that of the religions of the east. Asceticism as conceived in the east and today widely promoted in the west, may cause much harm to man, while the sane sense of asceticism in the Christian sense is comparatively little known and little practiced.
In Buddhism, asceticism is reserved for monks alone. It consists in a gradual separation from the body’s needs and the destruction of any longing for the world. It involves special techniques (“right effort” and “right vigilance”) unto the last stage (“right concentration”) in which the ascetic finally purifies and calms his thought. Thereby he acquires the ability to possess absolute knowledge, which leads in turn to purification from desire, the state of becoming, and ignorance. If he deliberately undergoes purification, the way to nirvana stands open. This understanding of asceticism, however, is based on a wrong conception of man and the world. The body here is something evil, as is the world. Existence ultimately turns out to be evil, and the right end of desire is annihilation.
We may find the Buddhist understanding of asceticism in various forms of gnosticism that have been revived in the late twentieth and twenty-first century. The influence of Protestant heresy is also visible. which reacted against medieval asceticism by rejecting asceticism in general. That Protestants did not see any need for asceticism was also connected with their doctrine of justification and salvation through faith alone, since they hold that after original sin man became incapable of cooperating with God’s grace. On the other hand, there have been tendencies of exaggerated asceticism in Protestantism that have led to an imprudent contempt for literature, theatre, and leisure, among other things.
Asceticism is understood much differently in the realistic thought that shapes the Catholic religion. Human nature requires the practice of asceticism. Asceticism is not as in the religions of the east reserved for those who have taken religious vows. In human life the sensory and spiritual side of nature are in conflict. A truly human life fitting to man as a person occurs when the higher spiritual powers—the reason and will—rule over sensual desires. It is difficult to achieve such mastery, but not impossible. The effort to introduce the proper hierarchy and order in human nature is called asceticism.
Asceticism is not a flight from life or a rejection of pleasure. Distorted images of asceticism are often seen in literature, the media, and even in textbooks of ethics. The culture of consumerism is responsible for the false and widely circulated image of asceticism. Consumerism deliberately discredits asceticism to pave the way for a life-style that is beneath man because it lacks any moral effort.
Asceticism enables us to affirm fully life in its spiritual and sensual dimensions. It is not an elimination of pleasure or an expression of hatred of pleasure. One of the most eminent authors of asceticism, St. Thomas Aquinas, says simply: “no one can live without sensory and corporeal pleasure”. The purpose of asceticism is to make pleasures take their proper place. The practice of asceticism consists in medication, vigilance, fasting, prayer, and abstinence from things that are not in themselves evil, but without which we can still live, i.e., mainly every kind of pleasure: that of sight, hearing, and touch. In these areas we need to maintain particular restraint. Unhealthy curiosity, concupiscence of the eyes, which today may be indicated by immoderate viewing of television, is a telling sign of our times in which asceticism has effectively been discredited. The desire to see an illusory world, especially when we do not need to see it, must lead to the downfall of the truly human life, the interior life whose natural food is reality and not artificial productions (hence an important part of asceticism is to be in contact with nature). Asceticism is particularly important in the area of visual pleasure. We must pay special attention to this requirement, for the eyes, even against our will, are bombarded with chaotic impressions. Morally evil mental images arise from unmastered looks, and these images allow an attack on the will. The disappearance of the realistic conception of asceticism has led to a situation where sensual desires are released from under the power of the reason and will. The search for powerful impressions and the boredom that follows are a binomial that characterizes well the condition of man in our civilization.
The Catholic Church is faithful to the truth about man and emphasizes the role of asceticism in the proper sense. A truly human life cannot be without asceticism. The recommendation of asceticism is an exaltation of life, but life in its full and human dimension, not as restricted to its sensual dimension. Such a life is truly difficult but great joy goes together with this difficulty. The joy is all the greater since for the Catholic it is connected with the hope of joy in seeing God. The aim of asceticism is not, as in the religions of the East, dissolution into nothingness, but completion in existence, the perfecting of oneself, which as a result means the new creation of the image of God in man.
Tomasz z Akwinu [Thomas Aquinas], Modlitwy [Prayers], Wwa 1928; idem, Summa theologiae, I–II, in: Opera omnia Sancti Thomae Aquinatis, Tn-R 1946–1967; Woroniecki KEW I–II (passim); E. Larkin, Rola ascetyzmu w życiu współczesnym [The role of asceticism in contemporary life], Concilium 2–3 (1966–1967).