Asceticism has been defined as "extreme self-denial and austerity". It sounds scary. It calls to mind some gaunt guy living in a desert cave, dressed in an animal skin or nothing at all, scratching himself with a rock and with only a pet lion or crow for company.
Or some grim-faced aunt who strongly disapproves of "sin, the flesh and the Devil" and seems to equate these with parties, the internet, dancing and anything making you smile.
On this view the holy ascetic is someone who renounces all the fun things of life and approaches it through gritted teeth. But there's another Catholic view of asceticism.
St Thomas Aquinas taught that if God is good anything He creates is good – and that must include the world, the body, eating, drinking and the rest.
When Christians engage in temporary penances or lifelong renunciations they recognise – or should recognise – that what they are giving up is good in itself and they should only give it up for the sake of some greater good.
High cholesterol religion
Indeed you might say Catholicism is, by nature, a high cholesterol religion. We delight in our cosmos and in the fact that God not only created and sustains it, but joined it forever through the Incarnation.
We celebrate Christmas with 12 days of feasting and Easter with 50! As Hilaire Belloc rhymed, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/ There's always laughter and good red wine." And St Thomas was not known for his thin waist!
But we should not let go of the idea of asceticism altogether. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which means "practice" or "exercise", like an athlete training for success in sport.
Like us Aussies, the ancient Greeks took their sport very seriously. They invented or perfected gyms, stadiums, the Olympics and many sports we still play today.
Some priests manage to work their favourite sport or team into their homilies from time to time Pope Francis is so inclined.
Likewise, St Paul used the idea of wrestling or running to describe the Christian life and he compared heaven with the wreath or trophy given the winner (e.g., 1 Cor 9:24-7; 2 Tim 2:5; 4:7). But only practice makes perfect and Paul recognised that practice in the spiritual life includes a certain amount of self-denial.
Lent is practice for Easter. It's when we go into training as Christians. It's our spiritual fitness regime.
Instead of sports diets, exercise regimes and performance-enhancing drugs we are offered fasting, prayer and almsgiving as our program, our askesis.
Only a few weeks from now, at Easter, the competition begins. We will take our Olympic oath by repeating our baptismal promises and we will run into the stadium of the world wearing Christ's colours and proclaiming the resurrection. So what's your spiritual fitness and exercise plan for Lent?
Here are a few suggestions.
Extra prayer: try a weekday Mass in addition to the Sunday ones; the family rosary; some time of adoration; some quiet time with God every day, even if it's just a few minutes more than normal.
Confession, of course, is THE Lenten prayer. There's no better way of purging yourself of all the impurities and really getting yourself in tip-top condition!
Extra fasting: no meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday but how about every Friday? Skip the snacks between meals. Pick something you really like and often eat or drink – not something you really won't miss much and so can easily give up – and let that go for six weeks.
Fast from your smart phone on Fridays. Identify your own particular addiction or compulsion or bad habit and try going "cold turkey" for Lent.
Extra almsgiving: Project Compassion is a favourite way of giving to the poor at this time. Don't just give the loose change that weighs down your pockets or purse: give so it bites a bit.
Give so you've got to give up some luxury, some little pleasure, for once. How else might you help the needy? How about visiting a sick or elderly person? Or volunteering some time to a charity?
In the end, of course, saint-making is God's work not ours. Hopefully, our little asceticisms are motivated and empowered by God's grace and open our hearts to receiving all the more from Him.
Hopefully, our little penances manifest our love for God. If we enter the "desert" of Lent to discipline our passions it's only so we can enter more fully into the "dessert" of Easter when we will express those passions with alleluias. As St Augustine taught in his famous Confessions, it is by quieting the passions that we allow ourselves to listen to God – and then to sing with Him.
This article first appeared in the Parramatta Diocesan newspaper, Catholic Outlook.