For a period of time when I was exploring certain historical traditions, I tried different types of fasting. I found that I would often have really good days, and then there were some that felt as though it was all stupid and I was being dumb. These were also some of the biggest turning points in my own life, though, and in retrospect were well worth doing.
There is one thing I’ve never tried, though, pure Christian Asceticism. I have found myself fascinated previous with many more notable Christian authors, and I often have moments where I am like, “Dude, that Jesus fellow nailed this particular situation.” I was thinking just the other day about one attempt I made at helping someone who had admitted to struggling with regular life while wanting to follow a more shamanic path. I got super frustrated when she was talking about “helping people grow spiritually” while refusing to leave an abusive partner. This isn’t a sermon, but I will admit that upon reflecting on my own motives, it was a story that Jesus told that struck me as pretty accurate about me. This isn’t a sermon, so let’s move on.
Most notable ascetics come primarily from Catholicism. Your author is not Catholic, probably more likely to be considered a Heretic or Gnostic. (Even though such a thing as “Gnosticism” is pretty inaccurate historically as it is a modern scholarly term for a variety of interpretations, and it covers philosophies that are too diverse to really be included under the same umbrella term.) I have been looking at some of the writings of the Desert Fathers and the progression of more ascetic practice to try to better understand “why” it all started.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “Ascetic” itself as a word has the interesting origin of being from the Greek ἄσκησις áskesis which means quite literally “to train/polish.” Consider, though, the metaphorical uses of athletics in early Christian literature such as Paul’s use in 1 Corinthians 9:24. I do not know of any serious scholars who would suggest that he is saying τρέχετε (run) as in “Yo homies, lace up your Nikes and get to pounding the track!” It’s (as much of the way that I read all work from Judaeo-Christian literature), an allegory.
There are many branches of ascetic practice, and I don’t know that I could adequately summarize the entire history of the practice. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. An emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (Philokalia) and practices (Hesychasm). It doesn’t take a huge logical jump to understand how a belief system that is based so deeply on Judaism where we see references to asceticism in the נזיר (separated people, nazerites) and who’s most prominent figures seem to all embrace this way of giving away the physical for the spiritual, would be saturated by people who promoted such practices. There’s also no shortage of asceticism in fakirs, munis, sannyasis, bhikkus, stoics, and yogis. I could potentially write an entire book on the multicultural facets of ascetics.
Are these thoughts scientific, though? Well, if we look at the common practice of fasting, the answer is “It seems likely.” In modern American culture, where we seem to be experiencing an increase in “more than enough,” it is perhaps well worth exploring ideas that have been around in many cultures and seem to have their highest ideas in the highest ideas of the culture itself.
As such, I personally will be taking on periodic fasting, limiting fatty meats and oils, and along with a more rigorous asana practice. I cannot personally see any real backing for self-flagellation or some of the more violent practices, so we’ll start off small with “training” rather than “killing” in mind.
Special thanks to ThinkingFaith for their articles that helped me to better understand how some of my own concepts about Christian ascetics were perhaps mistaken.