I’ve been trying to learn how to swim the butterfly stroke for years now. I’m still pathetic. I churn that water so much that the chlorine almost becomes butter. And what’s the effect? I might as well be on a treadmill. I barely move. A lot of violence, no progress.
Sometimes the way we view asceticism is like how I swim the butterfly—or some butterfly-like stroke that resembles a drowning man flapping in a last attempt to catch a breath. Asceticism is a means to reach God. Its purpose is not to do violence to ourselves, though that in some aspect or another is always a result, but not a goal.
What is the asceticism God is calling us to today? I don’t have a specific answer, but it is whatever will most bring us to him.
It isn’t a matter of throwing out the old ascetical rules. No! Those are still valid and good applied in principle. The question isn’t throwing out. We love to do that: throw out the old saying that we have advanced beyond that. But if we don’t find a new boat before throwing out our old one, how are we going to get across to God? Rowboats and sailboats still work. The question is if there is another boat that can get us across quicker. Don’t throw out your rowboat. Buy a motor boat.
I don’t have an answer as to what that boat, that asceticism, that means for our time is. I can think of a few examples. St Jerome back in the early Church felt called to give up classical literature, because he felt it was too tempting an obstacle for him. Today it is often more ascetical for us to read classical literature than to give it up. If I tried imitating St Jerome while studying the classical humanities in the seminary, I don’t think my teacher would fall for it. St Teresa and many saints up to the dawn of the modern era used to do ascetical practices like whipping themselves. The Church doesn’t promote this as she used to. However, spending too much time on the television or social media was not an obstacle for St Jerome or St Teresa. That could be an example for our day and age where we can practice asceticism. It is never for its own sake, but always to bring us closer to the Lord.
Ascetical practices can bring us closer to God in a number of ways. Giving up an obsessive and excessive use to some electronic device is a direct action to bring us to him. Sacrificing our time for more prayer or service is also direct asceticism. That doesn’t mean giving up sweets is useless. That also brings us closer to him because it empties us of ourselves so that we can be filled with him. The important thing is that we understand we are not emptying ourselves to be empty. We are emptying ourselves to be filled! That is the point of asceticism.
The answer of the asceticism for our day needs to be the fruit of discernment that goes deeper than just limiting our use of the social media. Again, I don’t have a particular answer. I leave that to each one to discover for himself and for experts to discover for our times. I can guarantee it isn’t going to be some completely new earth-shattering discovery, but I bet you it is nuanced, and I bet you also that it is already out there among many of our wise and holy brothers, sisters, and pastors around us. I just want to invite you, just as you need to daily discern what God is asking of you in your personal life day to day, to discern where God is leading our world in our present times.
We are all players in this perennial work of the New Evangelization. What is the ship, the asceticism, the means that God is choosing to bring us to him today. When it comes to recreation, sailing is great. When it comes to an urgent need to arrive at a destination that we can’t fail in (Heaven), we need to use the best means we have. We can’t blame unfavorable winds anymore.