We begin another Lent. Jesus enters the desert to engage in combat with the devil. He shares in and represents our humanity. “He was tempted in every way we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He allows himself to be weak and vulnerable. He abides in his identity as a beloved Son. With humility, trust, and confidence, he conquers. He shows us that genuine human maturity is possible. We get to share more and more in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Sometimes I taste that freedom. Other times, I resonate with the words of the apostle Paul: “I do not do the good that I desire, but the evil that I do not desire is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15). Even though I have free will, I often fee unfree!
This is where the ancient Christian Tradition of asceticism comes in. Beginning in the 200’s, many Christian men and women flocked to the desert to engage in spiritual combat and claim more fully the peace that only Christ can give.
Many people today haven’t even heard of “asceticism” or “ascesis.” Or if they have, they are likely to misunderstand or distort what it’s really about. People tend to hate it or love it for all the wrong reasons!
The Greek word askesis literally means “exercise” or “training.” Ascetical practices, when healthy and holy, are like the best of athletic training. Healthy training is directed toward a positive goal. It may include a good deal of self-denial, not to mention rigorous practices that are uncomfortable or even painful.
There can be joy, exhilaration, freedom, and peace in discovering that I am capable of so much more – and then actually experiencing it. I think back to my high school years, and the weightlifting and football training. Through intense discipline and consistent practice, often in community with others, celebrating each milestone, I discovered new possibilities that I didn’t know were within me.
I had similar experiences during the last decade, both with exercise and with how I eat. I remember quite vividly two triumphant moments about ten years ago. One was riding my bicycle up a tall and steep hill, staying in the lowest gear and determined to “just keep peddling.” It was so exhilarating when I actually made it to the top and kept going! Likewise, after months of buildup, I finally made it through an entire rigorous exercise video, muscles burning and heart pounding. It felt amazing. Seven years ago, after conversations with my doctor, I discovered new motivation to be healthier around food and alcohol. More importantly, my work in therapy and group therapy was opening my eyes to my emotions and my needs. I noticed how many times a day I felt an urge to eat (without actually being hungry). I became curious about what was really happening. I made phone calls daily to talk about it with friends. The self-denial around food opened up an awareness of how much within me needed care and healing.
I look back and see how Spirit-led all of it was. I received an abundance of healing; I genuinely matured. I look back, and I also see some pitfalls in the process – my pride and shame. There was a certain impurity in my motives – relishing the positive attention from others, silently making comparisons or judgments, and believing lies that I was somehow more lovable because I weighed less and looked different. More subtly, there was the role (the false identity) that I had adopted in adolescence – that of the golden child, who looks and acts the part and makes the family system look good. I played that role in my family; I played it for my church family; I even played it at times during 4+ years of group therapy. I recall a moment in which the group facilitator made a comment about me being the “poster child” of the group. As has happened so many times in my life, that admiration felt amazing but ultimately left me feeling empty. As I have previously described, admiration is not the same as love; and drivenness is not the same as desire.
Two years ago, I parted ways amicably with that group, as my healing journey went in a new and deeper direction. Those who truly know me and love me describe to me many ways they have seen me continue to grow. I have also “grown” in less desirable ways – externally showing weight gain that belies some of my unhealthy habits that have crept their way back in. And then I battle with the old accusing voice of shame, calling me a hypocrite – here I am, invited in my current ministry to lead other priests into healthier living, and I find myself not living in a healthy way. But that shame is telling me lies. Now I get to seek asceticism out of desire rather than fear or shame. Moreover, I now see more clearly the toxicity that is so often present in the fitness culture, the shame and contempt towards certain bodies, and the idolatry of thinness. Being healthy and holy is not about the shape of your or my body or the number that shows up on the scale. It’s certainly not about gaining the adulation of others. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that is more interested in selling their products and services than in real human flourishing. The messages are often manipulative and shaming. As it turns out, both fitness culture and asceticism have much to offer, and both are full of pitfalls.
The desert is a dangerous place. There are fell creatures there. The devil doesn’t sleep. The combat is not easy. The victory is not a one-and-done, but an ongoing and very non-linear process. When you withdraw from the world and engage in healthy self-denial, it is then that the real combat begins. Sometimes you get your lunch handed to you. Much like the cave in The Empire Strikes Back or the woods of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, entering the desert uncovers what already lies within your heart – and then the real combat begins.
The lives of the saints are so often sanitized or glamorized – as though they easily and quickly achieved holiness and purity. Their lived reality was so different! As Bishop Erik Varden describes in his new book on chastity, the virtue of purity is actually exceedingly rare, because it takes many years of patient and diligent effort to mature into it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (nn. 2337-2445), this process of maturing into purity is a long and exacting labor that must be renewed in every stage of life. It requires lifelong apprenticeship. It is mainly about healthy relationships, emotional maturity, and our capacity to receive and give love.
Let’s not forgot how Jesus begins his combat in the desert. He is not led there out of fear or shame, nor to improve his public image, nor because he is hoping he can change and become lovable. No, he is led there at his Father’s invitation, by the Holy Spirit, immediately following his baptism. He has already been claimed as the Father’s beloved, in whom the Father delights. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit for the battle. It can be the same for us.
Secure relationship comes first. We first are loved and delighted in and belong. We first receive strength from on high. If you are like me, much of the battle will be with the multi-layered lies of shame that keep trying to tell me I can only be lovable if…
Shame gets healed in communion – communion with God and healthy community with each other.
This Lent, I feel the Lord inviting me to reclaim healthy discipline, to engage in exercise (ascesis) in both bodily and spiritual ways. I am resolved to do so out of a desire to abide in love, to grow and mature, and to bear fruit. I may once again discover mixed motives; it’s still worth it. Layer by layer, the Lord will keep patiently and gently uncovering my heart. Such was the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus’ mother Mary. As her Son dies on the Cross, he gives her to me as a mother who always delights in me, shelters me, and guides me. I am already loved. I can now grow and keep growing.
Jesus conquers the devil by standing firm in his identity. I pray that you and I may remember who we are as we pray and live into the Collect prayer of Ash Wednesday:
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
As we enter the desert with Jesus, may we come to share more fully in his Paschal victory, and claim that joy and peace that no one can steal away.