At a surface level, asceticism (the constellation of the practices of voluntary self-denial such as fasting from food) does not hold much attraction for us today. In the film version of The Da Vinci Code, the crazy and murderous albino monk, Silas is depicted whipping himself and wearing a chain wrapped around his leg that he tightens so as to draw his own blood. What such a picture conveys is fanaticism, self-hatred and a religious practice divorced from all that is holy, healthy and good.
Yet there are numerous signs in our culture today that, at a deeper level, there is a desire for a freeing asceticism, if only we knew how to practise it. In the era of retail therapy and consumerism, we hear about people who have discovered the benefits of downsizing, de-cluttering and material simplicity. Caught in the incessant and hectic pace of modern life, we yearn for a way to step off the conveyor belt of busy-ness and find some space just to be, to be with others, to be with God.
Drowning in an infinite sea of calories, we buy into a multi-billion pound yet apparently ineffective diet industry, with its promises to ‘naturally’ cleanse the toxins from our bodies, ‘juice fasting’ and a thousand varieties of quasi-ascetical practices. Aware of our propensity to unintentional overuse of the internet and our other communication gadgets, we yearn for the freedom that comes from being ‘unplugged,’ but can’t quite bring ourselves to pull the plug, even for a few hours. Is there, then, a way to recover from the Christian tradition the wisdom for an authentic practice of asceticism that can lead to the freedom and prayerfulness that, now more than ever, we yearn for?