What Is Asceticism?

The word asceticism comes from the Greek askesis which means practice, bodily exercise, and more especially, athletic training. The early Christians adopted it to signify the practice of the spiritual things, or spiritual exercises performed for the purpose of acquiring the habits of virtue. At present it is not infrequently employed in an opprobrious sense, to designate the religious practices of oriental fanatics as well as those of the Christian saint, both of whom are by some placed in the same category. It is not uncommonly confounded with austerity, even by Catholics, but incorrectly. For although the flesh is continuously lusting against the spirit, and repression and self-denial are necessary to control the animal passions, it would be an error to measure a man’s virtue by the extent and character of his bodily penances. External penances even in the saints, are regarded with suspicion. St. Jerome, whose proneness to austerity makes him an especially valuable authority on this point, thus writes to Celantia:

Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.

Thus asceticism according to the definition of St. Jerome, is an effort to attain true perfection, penance being only an auxiliary virtue thereto. It should be noted also that the expression “fasting and abstinence” is commonly used in Scripture and by ascetic writers as a generic term for all sorts of penance. Neither should asceticism be identified with mysticism. For although genuine mysticism can not exist without asceticism, the reverse is not true. One can be an ascetic without being a mystic. Asceticism is ethical; mysticism, largely intellectual. Asceticism has to do with the moral virtues; mysticism is a state of unusual prayer or contemplation. They are distinct from each other, though mutually co-operative. Moreover although asceticism is generally associated with the objectionable features of religion, and is regarded by some as one of them, it may be and is practised by those who affect to be swayed by no religious motives whatever.

Water Travel Summer Sea Beach Relaxation

Monk in relaxation

Natural asceticism

If for personal satisfaction, or self interest, or any other merely human reason, a man aims at the acquisition of the natural virtues, for instance, temperance, patience, chastity, meekness, etc., he is, by the very fact, exercising himself in a certain degree of asceticism. For he has entered upon a struggle with his animal nature; and if he is to achieve any measure of success, his efforts must be continuous and protracted. Nor can he exclude the practice of penance. Indeed he will frequently inflict upon himself both bodily and mental pain. He will not even remain within the bounds of strict necessity. He will punish himself severely, either to atone for failures, or to harden his powers of endurance, or to strengthen himself against future failures. He will be commonly described as an ascetic, as in fact he is. For he is endeavouring to subject the material part of his nature to the spiritual, or in other words, he is striving for natural perfection. The defect of this kind of asceticism is that, besides being prone to error in the acts it performs and the means it adopts, its motive is imperfect, or bad. It may be prompted by selfish reasons of utility, pleasure, aestheticism, ostentation, or pride. It is not to be relied upon for serious efforts and may easily give way under the strain of weariness or temptation. Finally, it fails to recognize that perfection consists in the acquisition of something more than natural virtue.

Christian asceticism

Monk Coat Black Wind Solitude Plain


It is prompted by the desire to do the will of God, any personal element of self-satisfaction which enters the motive vitiating it more or less. Its object is the subordination of the lower appetites to the dictates of right reason and the law of God, with the continued and necessary cultivation of the virtues which the Creator intended man to possess. Absolutely speaking, the will of God in this matter is discoverable by human reason, but it is explicitly laid down for us in the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, which furnishes a complete code of ethical conduct. Some of these commandments are positive; others, negative. The negative precepts, “thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not commit adultery”, etc., imply the repression of the lower appetites, and consequently call for penance and mortification; but they intend also, and effect, the cultivation of the virtues which are opposed to the things forbidden. They develop meekness, gentleness, self-control, patience, continence, chastity, justice, honesty, brotherly love, which are positive in their character, magnanimity, liberality, etc.; while the first three which are positive in their character, “thou shall adore thy God”, etc., bring into vigorous and constant exercise the virtues of faith, hope, charity, religion, reverence and prayer. Finally the fourth insists on obedience, respect for authority, observance of law, filial piety, and the like. Such were the virtues practised by the mass of the people of God under the Old Law, and this may be considered as the first step in true asceticism. For apart from the many instances of exalted holiness among the ancient Hebrews, the lives of the faithful followers of the Law, that is the main body of the ordinary people must have been such as the Law enjoined and although their moral elevation might not be designated as asceticism in the present restricted and distorted meaning of the term, yet it probably appeared to the pagan world of those times very much as exalted virtue does to the world today. Even the works of penance to which they were subjected in the many fasts and abstinences, as well as the requirements of their ceremonial observances were much more severe than those imposed up the Christians who succeeded them.

In the New Dispensation the binding force of the Commandments continued, but the practice of virtue took on another aspect, in as much as the dominant motive presented to man for the service of God was not fear, but love, though fear was by no means eliminated. God was to be the Lord indeed, but He was at the same time the Father and men were His children. Again, because of this sonship the love of one’s neighbour ascended to higher plane. The “neighbour” of the Jew was one of the chosen people, and even of him rigorous justice was to be exacted; it was an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. In the Christian dispensation the neighbour is not only one of the true faith, but the schismatic, the outcast, and the pagan. Love is extended even to one’s enemies, and we are bidden to pray for, and to do good to them who revile and persecute us. This supernatural love for even the vilest and most repellent representatives of humanity constitutes one of the distinctive marks of Christian asceticism. Moreover, the more extended and luminous revelation of Divine things, coupled with the greater abundance of spiritual assistance conferred chiefly through the instrumentality of the sacraments, make practice of virtue easier and more attractive at the same time more elevated, generous, intense and enduring, while the universality of Christianity lifts the practice of asceticism out of the narrow limitations of being the exclusive privilege of a single race into a common possession of all nations of the earth. The Acts of the Apostles show the transformation immediately effected among devout Jews who formed the first communities of Christians. That new and elevated form of virtue has remained in the Church ever since.

Wherever the Church has been allowed to exert her influence we find virtue of the highest order among her people. Even among those whom the world regards as simple and ignorant there are most amazing perceptions of spiritual truths, intense love of God and of all that relates to Him, sometimes remarkable habits of prayer, purity of life both in individuals and in families, heroic patience in submitting to poverty, bodily suffering, and persecution, magnanimity in forgiving injury, tender solicitude for the poor and afflicted, though they themselves may be almost in the same condition; and what most characteristic of all, a complete absence of envy of the rich and powerful and a generally undisturbed contentment and happiness in their own lot; while similar results are achieved among the wealthy and great, though not to the same extent. In a word, there is developed an attitude of soul so much at variance with the principles and methods generally obtaining in the pagan world that, from the beginning, and indeed throughout, under the Old Law, it was commonly described and denounced as folly. It might be classified as very lofty asceticism if its practice were not so common, and if the conditions of poverty and suffering in which these virtues are most frequently practised were not the result of physical or social necessity. But even if these conditions are not voluntary, the patient and uncomplaining acceptance of them constitutes a very noble kind of spirituality which easily develops into one of a higher kind and may be designated its third New Law we have not merely the reaffirmation of the precepts of the Old, but also the teachings and example of Christ Who, besides requiring obedience to the Commandments, continually appeals to His followers for proofs of personal affection and a closer imitation of His life than is possible by the mere fulfilment of the Law. The motives and the manner of this imitation are laid down in the Gospel, which as the basis taken by ascetical writers for their instructions. This imitation of Christ generally proceeds along three main lines, viz.: mortification of the senses, unworldliness, and detachment from family ties.

It is here especially that asceticism comes in for censure on the part of its opponents. Mortification, unworldliness, and detachment are particularly obnoxious to them. But in answer to their objection it will be sufficient to note that condemnations of such practices or aspirations must fall on Holy Scripture also, for it gives a distinct warrant for all three. Thus we have, as regards mortification, the words of St. Paul, who says: “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway” (1 Corinthians 9:27); while Our Lord Himself says: “He that taketh not up his cross, and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38). Commending unworldliness, we have: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36); approving detachment, there is the text, not to cite others: “if any man come to Me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). It is scarcely necessary to note however, that the word “hate” is not to be taken in its strict sense, but only as indicating a greater love for God than for all things together. Such is the general scheme of this higher order of asceticism.

The character of this asceticism is determined by its motive. In the first place a man may serve God in such a way that he is willing to make any sacrifice rather than commit a grievous sin. This disposition of soul, which is the lowest in the spiritual life, is necessary for salvation. Again, he may be willing to make such sacrifices rather than offend God by venial sin. Lastly he may, when this no question of sin at all, be eager to do whatever will make his life harmonize with that of Christ. It is this last motive which the highest kind of asceticism adopts. These three stages are called by St. Ignatius “the three degrees of humility”, for the reason that they are the three steps in the elimination of self, and consequently three great advances towards union with God, who enters the soul in proportion as self is expelled. It is the spiritual state of St. Paul speaks when he says: “And I live, now not I ; but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). Other ascetic writers describe them as states or conditions of the beginners the proficient and the perfect. They are not, however, to be considered chronologically distinct; as if the perfect man had nothing to do with the methods of the beginner, or vice versa. “The building of the spiritual edifice”, says Scaramelli, “is simultaneous in all its parts. The roof is stretched while the foundations are being laid. “Hence the perfect man, even with his sublime motive of imitation, has always need of the fear of damnation, in order that, as St. Ignatius expresses it, if ever the love of God grows cold, the fear of Hell may rekindle it again. On the other hand, the beginner who has broken with mortal sin has already started in his growth to perfect charity. These states are also described as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. It is evident that the practice of unworldliness, of detachment from family and other ties, must be or the greatest number not the actual performance of those things, but only the serious disposition or readiness to make such sacrifices, in case God should require them, which, as a matter of fact in their case, He does not. They are merely affective, and not effective, but none the less they constitute a very sublime kind of spirituality. Sublime as it is, there are many examples of it in the Church, nor is it the exclusive possession of those who have abandoned the world or are about to do so, but it is the possession also of many whom necessity compels to live in the world, married as well as single, of those who are in the enjoyment of honour and wealth and of responsibility as well as of those who are in opposite conditions. They cannot effectively realize their desires or aspirations but their affections take that direction. Thus there are multitudes of men and women who though living in the world are not of it, who have no liking or taste for worldly display, though often compelled by their position, social or otherwise, to assume it, who avoid worldly advancement or honour not out of pusillanimity, but out of unconcern, or contempt, or knowledge of its danger; who, with opportunities for pleasure, practise penance, sometimes of the most rigorous character who would willingly, if it were possible, give up their lives to works of charity or devotion, who love the poor and dispense alms to the extent of, and even beyond, their means, who have strong attraction for prayer, and who withdraw from the world when it is possible for the meditation of divine things; who frequent the sacraments assiduously; who are the soul of every undertaking for the good of their fellow-men and the glory of God; and whose dominant preoccupation in the advancement of the interest of God and the Church. Bishops and priests especially enter into this category. Even the poor and humble, who, having nothing to give, yet would give if they had any possessions, may be classed among such servants of Christ.

That this asceticism is not only attainable but attained by laymen serves to bring out the truth which is sometimes lost sight of, viz., that the practice of perfection is not restricted to the religious state. In fact, though one may live in the state of perfection, that is, be a member of a religious order, he may be surpassed in perfection by a layman in the world. But to reduce these sublime dispositions to actual practice, to make them not only affective but effective to realize what Christ meant when, after having told the multitude on the Mount of the blessedness of poverty of spirit, He said to the Apostles, “Blessed are you who are poor”, and to reproduce also the other virtues of Christ and the Apostles, the Church has established a life of actual poverty, chastity, and obedience. For that purpose, it has founded religious orders, thus enabling those who are desirous and able to practise this higher order of asceticism, to do so with greater facility and in greater security.

Monastic or religious asceticism

The establishment of religious orders was not the result of any sudden or mandatory legislation by the Church. On the contrary, the germs of religious life were implanted in it by Christ Himself from the very beginning. For in the Gospel we have repeated invitations to follow the evangelical counsels. Hence in the first days of the Church, we find that particular kind of asceticism widely practised which later developed into the form adopted by the Religious Orders. In the “History of the Roman Breviary” by Batiffol (tr. Bayley), 15, we read: “In proportion as the Church in extending itself had grown colder, there had taken place within its bosom a drawing together of those souls which were possessed of the greatest zeal and fervour. These consisted of men and women, alike, living in the world without severing themselves from the ties and obligations of ordinary life, yet binding themselves by private vow or public profession to live in chastity all their life, to fast all the week, to spend their days in prayer. They were called in Syria Monazonites and Parthenae, ascetics and virgins. They formed, as it were, a third order, a confraternity. In the first half of the fourth century, we find these associations of ascetics and virgins established in all the great Churches of the East, at Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa.” Men like Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and others wrote and legislated for them. They had a special place in the church services and it is noteworthy also that at Antioch “the ascetics there formed the main body of the Nicene or orthodox party”. But “dating from the reign of Theodosius and the time when Catholicism became the social religion of the world, comes the movement when a deep cleavage in religious society manifested itself. These ascetics and virgins, who, till now, have mingled with the common body of the faithful, abandon the world and go forth into the wilderness. The Church of the multitude is no longer a sufficiently holy city for these pure ones; they go forth to build in the desert the Jerusalem which they crave.” (Cf. Duchesne, Christian Worship.)

The time when these foundations began is said by Batiffol to be “when Catholicism became the social religion”. Previous to that, with their pagan surroundings, such establishments would have been out of the question. The instinct for monastic institutions was there, but its realization was delayed. Those who enter a religious order take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which are considered here only in as much as they differentiate a particular kind of asceticism from other forms. They are called substantial vows because they are the basis of a permanent and fixed condition or state of life, and affect, modify, determine, and direct the whole attitude of one who is bound by them in his relations to the world and to God. They constitute a mode of existence which has no other purpose than that some of these penitents may have the attainment of the highest spiritual perfection. Being perpetual, they ensure permanence in practice of virtue and prevent it from being intermittent and sporadic; being an absolute, free, (irrevocable), and complete surrender of the most precious possessions of man, their fulfilment creates a spirituality, or a species of asceticism, of the most heroic character. Indeed it is inconceivable what more one can offer to God, or how these virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience can be exercised in a higher degree. That the observance of these vows is a reproduction of the manner of life of Christ and the Apostles, and has, as a consequence, given countless saints to the Church, is a sufficient answer to the accusation that the obligations they impose are degrading, inhuman, and cruel, a reproach often urged against them.

While concurring in the practice of the same fundamental virtues, the religious bodies are differentiated from one another by the particular object which prompted their separate formation, namely, some need of the Church, some new movement which had to be combated, some spiritual or corporal aid that had to be brought to mankind, etc. From this there resulted that besides the observance of the three main virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience some special virtue is cultivated by each. Thus the beginning of Christianity, when labour was considered a badge of slavery, the great, the learned, the noble, as well as the humble, the ignorant, and the poor, filled the deserts of Egypt and supported themselves by manual labour, their withdrawal from the world being also a protest against the corruption of paganism. After the destruction of the Roman Empire the Benedictines taught the barbarians agriculture, the arts, letters, architecture, etc., while inculcating the virtues of Christianity; the poverty of the Fransciscans was a condemnation of the luxury and extravagance of the age in which they originated; the need of protecting the faithful from heresy gave rise to the Order of Preachers; rebellion against authority and defection from the Pope called for special emphasis on obedience and loyalty to Holy See by the Society of Jesus, the defence the Holy Land created the Military Orders; redemption of captives, the care of the sick and poor, education, missionary work, etc. all called into existence an immense variety of congregations, whose energies were directed along one special line of good works, with the consequent development to an unusual degree of the virtues which were needed to attain that special end. Meantime, the rules, covering every detail and every moment of their daily lives, called for the practice of all the other virtues.

In some of the orders the rules make no mention of corporal penance at all, leaving that to individual devotion; in others great austerity is prescribed but excess is provided against both by the fact the rules have been subjected to pontifical approval and because superiors can grant exceptions. That such penitential practices produce morbid and gloomy characters is absurd to those who know the lightheartedness that prevails in strict religious communities; that they are injurious to health and abbreviate life cannot be seriously maintained in view the remarkable longevity noted among the members of very austere orders. It is true the lives of the saints we meet with some very extraordinary and apparently extravagant mortifications; but in the first place, what is extraordinary, extravagant, and severe in one generation may not be so in another which is ruder and more inured to hardship. Again, they are not proposed for imitation, nor that the biographer was not exaggerating, or describing as continual what was only occasional; and on the other hand it is not forbidden to suppose that some of the penitents may have been prompted by the Spirit of God to make themselves atoning victims for the sins of others. Besides it must not be forgotten that these practices went hand to hand with the cultivation of the sublimest virtues, that they were for the most part performed in secret, and in no case for ostentation and display. But even if there was abuse, the Church is not responsible for the aberrations of individuals, nor does her teaching become wrong if misunderstood or misapplied, as might have been done inadvertently or unconsciously, even by the holiest of her children, in the exaggerated use of corporal penance. The virtue of prudence is a part of asceticism. The reformation or abolition of certain orders because of corruption only emphasizes the truth that monastic asceticism means an organized effort to attain perfection. If that purpose is kept in view, the order continues to exist; if it ceases to be ascetic in its life, it is abolished.

A common accusation against religious asceticism is that it is synonymous with idleness. Such a charge ignores all past and contemporary history. It was the ascetic monks who virtually created our present civilizations by teaching the barbarian tribes the value and dignity of manual labour; by training them in the mechanical arts, in agriculture, in architecture, etc.; by reclaiming swamps and forests, and forming industrial centres from which great cities developed, not to speak of the institutions of learning which they everywhere established. Omitting the especially prominent instances now before the world, namely the vast amount of industry and toil implied in the establishment, organization, management, and support of tens of thousands of asylums, hospitals, refuges, and schools in civilized lands by men and women who are wearing themselves out in labouring for the good of humanity, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women bound by vows and practising religious asceticism who, without any compensation to themselves except the supernatural one of sacrificing themselves for others, are at the present moment labouring among savage tribes all over the world, teaching them to build houses, till their fields, work at trades, care for their families while at the same time imparting to them human learning in the drudgery of schools, and leading them in the way of salvation. Idleness and asceticism are absolutely incompatible with each other, and the monastic institution where idleness prevails has already lost its asceticism and, if not swept away by some special upheaval, will be abolished by ecclesiastical legislation. The precept which St. Paul laid down for ordinary Christians has always been a fundamental principle of genuine asceticism: “If any man will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But, as a matter of fact, the Church has seldom had to resort to such a drastic measure as destruction. She has easily reformed the religious orders which, while giving her many of her most learned men and illustrious saints, have been ever a source of pride because of the stupendous work they have achieved, not only for the honour of God and the advancement of the Church, but in uplifting; humanity leading it in the ways of virtue and holiness, and establishing institutions of benevolence and charity for every species of human suffering and sorrow.

In apparent contradiction with the assertion that the highest expression of asceticism is to be found in monastic life is the fact that monasticism not only exists in the pagan religions of India, but is associated with great moral depravity. Attempts have been made to show that these Hindu institutions are merely travesties of Christian monasteries, probably those of the old Nestorians, or the result of primitive Christian traditions. But neither of these suppositions can be accepted. For, although, doubtless, Indian monasticism in the course of ages borrowed some of its practices from Nestorianism, the fact is that it existed before the Coming of Christ. The explanation of it is that it is nothing else than the outcome of the natural religious instinct of man to withdraw from the world for meditation, prayer, and spiritual improvement instances of which might be cited among the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, and among ourselves in the Brook Farm and other American experiments. But they were merely imitations or the promptings of a natural instinct, it only goes to show, in the first place, that monastic seclusion is not unnatural to man; and secondly, that some Divinely constituted authority is new to guide this natural propensity and to prevent it from falling into those extravagances to which religious enthusiasm is prone. In other words, there must be an acknowledged and absolute spiritual power to legislate for it along the lines of truth and virtue, to censure and condemn and punish what is wrong in individuals and associations; a power able to determine infallibly what is morally right and wrong. The Catholic church alone claims that power. It has always recognized the ascetic instinct in man, has approved associations for the cultivation of religious perfection, has laid down minute rules for their guidance, has always exercised the strictest surveillance over them, and has never hesitated to abolish them when they were intended. Moreover, as genuine asceticism does not rest satisfied with natural, but aims at supernatural, perfection, and as the supernatural in the New Dispensation is in the guardianship of the Catholic Church, under its guidance alone is asceticism secure.

Jewish asceticism

Besides the ordinary observers of the Old Law, we have the great Hebrew saints and prophets whose deeds are recorded in the Holy Bible. They were ascetics who practised the loftiest virtue, who were adorned with remarkable spiritual gifts, and consecrated themselves to the service of God and their fellow-men. As to the Schools of the Prophets, whatever they may have been, it is admitted that one of the objects intended was the practice of virtue, and in that respect they may be regarded as schools of asceticism. The Nazarites were men who consecrated themselves by a perpetual or temporary vow to abstain all the days of their Nazariteship, that is, during their separation from the rest of the people, from the use of wine and all other intoxicating drink, from vinegar formed from wine or strong drink, from any liquor of grapes, from grapes dried or fresh, and indeed from the use of anything produced from the vine. Other observances which were of obligation, such as letting the hair grow, avoiding defilement, etc., were ceremonial rather than ascetic. The Nazarites were exclusively men, and there is said to be no instance in the Old Testamant of a female Nazarite. They were a class of persons “holy to the Lord” in a special sense, and made their vow of abstinence an example of self-denial and moderation and a protest against the indulgent habits of the Chanaanites which were invading the people of Israel. Samson and Samuel were consecrated by their mothers to this kind of life. It is not certain that they lived apart in distinct communities; like the Sons of the Prophets, though there is an instance of three hundred of them being found together at the same time.

The Rechabites

The Rechabites, whom, however, Josephus does not mention, appear to have been a normal tribe, distinguished chiefly by their abstinence from wine, though it is not certain that other intoxicants were forbidden, or that such abstinence was prompted by motives of penance. It may have been merely to prevent the culture of the vine in order to keep them in their nomadic state, the better to escape corruption from their Chanaanitish neighbours. There were also Essenes who lived a communal life, possessed no individual property, affected an extreme simplicity in diet and dress, and lived apart from great cities to preserve themselves from contamination. Some of them abjured marriage. They devoted themselves to the sick, and for that purpose made a special study of the curative qualities of herbs and boasted of possessing medical recipes handed down from Solomon. Hence their name, Essenes, or Healers. Finally come the Pharisees, who were the Puritans of the Old law, but whose virtues and austerities we know to have been often only pretence, although there were, doubtless, among them some who were in earnest in the practice of virtue. St. Paul describes himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Outside of Judea, there were said to be a certain number of Jews, men and women, living on the shores of Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria, who mingled their own religious observances with those of the Egyptians, and who lived a life of voluntary poverty, chastity, labour, solitude, and prayer. They were called Therapeutae, which, like Essenes, means Healers. Rappoport, in his “History of Egypt” (XI. 29), says that a certain class of the Egyptian priesthood led a similar kind of life. We know of the Therapeutae only from Philo. How true his descriptions are not be determined.

Heretical asceticism

In the second century of the Church appear the Encratites, or The Austere. They were a section of the heretical Gnostics, chiefly Syrians, who, because of their erroneous views about matter, withdrew from all contact with the world, and denounced marriage as impure. About the same period came the Montanists, who forbade second marriage, enjoined rigorous fasts, insisted on the perpetual exclusion from the Church of those who had ever committed grievous sin, stigmatized flight in time of persecution as reprehensible, protested that virgins should be always veiled, reprobated paintings, statuary, military service, theatres, and all worldly sciences. In the third century the Manichaeans held marriage to be unlawful and refrained from wine, meat, milk, and eggs; all of which did not deter them from the grossest immorality. The Flagellants were a sect that began about 1260. They journeyed from place to place in Italy, Austria, Bohemia, Bavaria, and Poland, scourging themselves to blood, ostensibly to excite the populace to contrition for their sins, but they were soon prohibited by the ecclesiastical authorities. They appeared again in the fourteenth century, in Hungary, Germany, and England. Pope Clement VI issued a Bull against them in 1349, and the Inquisition pursued them with such vigour that they disappeared altogether. They were bitter enemies of the Church. The Cathari of the twelfth century were, as their name implies, Puritans. Though teaching the doctrines of the Manichæans, they affected to live a purer life than the rest of the Church. Chief among them were the Waldenses, or “Poor Men of Lyons”, who accepted evangelical poverty and then defied the Pope, who suppressed them. Although Protestantism has been incessant in its denunciations of asceticism, it is amazing to note how many extreme instances of it the history of Protestantism furnishes. The Puritans of England and New England, with their despotic and cruel laws which imposed all sorts of restrictions not only upon themselves, but upon others, are examples of misguided ascetics. The early Methodists, with their denunciations of all amusements, dancing, theatres, card-playing, Sunday enjoyments, etc., were ascetics. The numberless Socialistic colonies and settlements which have sprung up in all countries are illustrations of the same spirit.

Pagan asceticism

Among the Greeks, we have the school, or quasi-community of Pythagoras, whose object was to extirpate the passions, but it was philosophic rather than religious in its character and may be placed in the category of Natural Asceticism.

Brahminical asceticism

It is frequently contended that an asceticism exists among the Brahmins of India which in some respects is equal, if not superior, to that of Christianity. It inculcates the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, self-control, obedience, temperance, alms-giving, care of the sick, meekness, forgiveness of injuries, returning good for evil, etc. It forbids suicide, abortion, perjury, slander, drunkenness, gluttony, usury, hypocrisy, slothfulness, and cruelty to animals. Ten vows bind the Brahmin to the practice of some of these virtues. Its practice of penance is extraordinary. Besides what is left to personal initiative, the Laws of Manu decree that: the Brahmin should roll himself on the ground or stand during the day tip-toe or alternately stand and sit. In summer let him expose himself to the heat of five fires, during the rainy season, let him live under the open sky; and in winter be dressed in wet clothes, thus great increasing the rigour of his austerities.” Protracted fasts of the most fantastic character are also enjoined. In all this, there is no asceticism. These suicidal penances, apart from their wickedness and absurdity, are based on a misconception of the purpose of mortification. They are not supposed to atone for sin or to acquire merit, but are prompt by the idea that the greater the austerity the greater the holiness, and that besides hastening absorption in the divinity they will help the penitent to obtain such a mastery over his body as to make it invisible at will, to float in the air, or pass with lighting speed from place to place. Being believers in metempsychosis, they regard these sufferings as a means of avoiding the punishment of new births under the form of other creatures.

Their pantheism destroys the very essential idea of virtue, for there can be no virtue, as there can be no vice, where one is a part of the deity. Again, the belief that there is no reality outside of Brahma prevents the use or abuse of creatures from having any influence on the righteous or unrighteous condition of the soul. Finally, as the end of existence is absorption into Brahma, with its attendant loss of personality and its adoption of an unconscious existence for all future time, it holds out no inducement to the practice of virtue. The whole system is based on pride. The Brahmin is superior to all mankind, and contact with another caste than his own, especially the poor and humble, is pollution. It makes marriage obligatory, but compels the wife to adore the husband no matter how cruel he is, permitting him to reject her at will; it encourages polygamy, approves of the harem, and authorizes the burning of widows in the suttees which the Bntish Goverment has not yet succeeded in preventing. It abhors manual labour and compels the practice of mendicancy and idleness, and it has done nothing for the physical betterment of the human race, as the condition of India for many centuries clearly shows. Its spiritual results are no better. Its liturgy is made up of the most disgusting, childish, and cruel superstitions, and its contradictory combinations of pantheism, materialism, and idealism have developed a system of cruel divinities worse than those of pagan antiquity. It is consequently not real asceticism.

Buddhist asceticism

The ascetical practices of the Buddhists are monastic in their character, the devotees living in communities, whereas the Brahmins are mostly solitaries, though admitting pupils. The moral codes of both sects resemble each other in some respects. For the Buddhists, there are five great duties: not to kill any living creature, not to steal, not to act unchastely, not to lie, not to drink intoxicating liquor. The eight-fold path of virtues is: right beliefs, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavour, right memory, right meditation. The cultivation of meekness, both internal and external, is expressedly inculcated. In the monasteries, confession of faults, but only of external ones, is practised, and great importance is attached to meditation. Their penances are comparatively moderate. Nevertheless, in spite of its glorification of virtue, this manner of life can not be regarded as asceticism. While holding its indifferent to the pantheism and other errors of Brahmanism, it ignores God entirely, and is atheistic or agnostic, admitting no dependence on the Divinity and acknowledging no obligation of worship, obedience, love, gratitude, belief; consequently, eliminating all virtue. Its avoidance of sin is purely utilitarian viz., to escape its consequences. Its ultimate end is extinction in Nirvana, thus having no inducement to virtue, while it accords the lower state of Swarga, with its sensual delights, to those who were helpful to the Buddhas. Like its predecessor, its idea of ultimate extinction is an extension of the Brahminist absorption and leads logically to suicide. It holds marriage in abhorrence, and suppresses all legitimate desires forbidding all recreation, music, movie, scientific pursuits, etc. Industrial occupations are regarded with contempt, and the ideal state is beggary and idleness. Although insisting upon celibacy as the proper state of man, it tolerates polygamy and divorce. It speaks most complacently of Buddha’s many hundred wives, before his conversion; lauds the extensive seraglio of Bimbissasa, its most distinguished royal convert, without hinting at its being any derogation from the standard of conduct of a Buddhist layman, while “the official head of Southern Buddhism at the present day, the King of Siam, exercises without scruple the privilege of maintaining a harem” (Aiken). It did not abolish the caste system except in the monasteries. Finally, “in the spread of this religion to other lands it adopted the idolatrous and obscene worship of Nepal; gave its sanction to the degrading shamanistic worship of Thibet, and is overlaid with the superstitions peculiar to China, Mongolia and Thibet.” It is an abuse of terms to describe the practices of such a creed as asceticism.

In conclusion, it may be said the difference between false and true asceticism is this: false asceticism starts out with a wrong idea of the nature of man, of the world, of God; it proposes to follow human reason, but soon falls into folly and become fanatical, and sometimes insane in its methods and projects. With an exaggerated idea of the rights and powers of the individual, it rebels against all spiritual control and, usurping a greater authority than the Church has ever claimed, leads its dupes into the widest extravagances. Its history is one of disturbance, disorder and anarchy, and is barren of results in the acquisition of truth or the uplifting of the individual and it works of benevolence or intellectual progress; and in some instances it has been the instrument of the most deplorable moral degradation. True asceticism, on the contrary, is guided by right reason, assisted by the light of revelation; it comprehends clearly the true nature of man, his destiny, and his obligations. Knowing that he has not been created in a merely natural condition, but elevated to a supernatural state, it seeks to illumine his mind and strengthen his will by supernatural grace. Aware that he has to control his lower passions and withstand the assaults of the evil spirit and seductions of the world, it not only permits, but enjoins, the practice of penance, while by the virtue of prudence which it inculcates, it prevents excess. Instead of withdrawing him from his fellow men and inducing moroseness and pride, it bestows on him joy and humility, inspires him with the greatest love for humanity, and cultivate that spirit of self-sacrifice which has, by its works of benevolence and charity, conferred countless benefits on the humane race. In a word, asceticism is nothing else than an enlightened method adopted in the observance of the law of God through all the various degrees of service, from the obedience of the ordinary believer to the absorbing devotion of the greatest saint, guiding each in accordance with the measure of grace imparted by the Spirit of Light and Truth.
By Thomas Campbell

This article is borrowed from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm.

About this page

APA citation. Campbell, T. (1907). Asceticism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 11, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm

MLA citation. Campbell, Thomas. “Asceticism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 11 Feb. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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