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Asceticism and the Call to Discipleship: A Gloss on the Discussion of Penitential Practices

Andrea Da Firenze, "Christ Bearing the Cross to Calvary"

Signposts, as I try to live the gospel in my own life, in the place in which I find myself now:

Signpost 1: this is a literal signpost.  It’s one I pass almost daily as I drive around my city running errands.  Prominently displayed in a yard of a house on a busy major artery out of the city, an artery from the inner city to its affluent, largely white suburbs, is a sign with a loud political (and ethical) slogan.

I haven’t copied the sign.  I’m quoting from memory, and summarizing as I do so.  It says something like, “Vic Snyder—DEMOCRAT.  Tried to destroy your good health insurance.  Are you happy?”

I don’t know who has put this sign up, whether an individual or a political party.  The context is clear to me.  As I noted on my Bilgrimage blog some months back, Mr. Snyder is the U.S. representative from my area, and when the health care reform bill was presented to the House, he voted in favor of it.

After that, Vic Snyder and his wife, a Methodist minister, were accosted by a group of socialites while they were eating at an upscale local restaurant.  The socialites informed Mr. Snyder of their displeasure at his support of health care reform.  They told him there would be consequences for that support.

Subsequently, Snyder announced he will not run for re-election.  During the debate about health care reform (and I also reported this on my blog), my state, Arkansas, was flooded with calls by groups demanding that health care reform be stopped in its tracks (as well as with calls by those trying to counter the message of those anti-health care reform calls).  These calls made outrageous claims about what would happen if health-care reform were enacted.  They stirred up fear, confusion, and anger among the state’s citizens, who had previously polled largely in favor of universal health care coverage.

Here’s what this signpost (and those calls) have said to me: I have health insurance.  I don’t care about the fact that you don’t have it.  If you don’t have it, it’s because you are lazy/immoral/uneducated/likely to be brown or black/a sap on my resources.

I struggle to live the gospel in the midst of a culture in which that viewpoint about the right of all human beings to have access to ongoing, basic health care coverage is strongly represented, and in which that viewpoint is now being deliberately cultivated by the business community (many of the anti-health care calls in our area originated with the Chamber of Commerce), the health insurance industry, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Signpost 2: Andre Bauer, lieutenant-governor of South Carolina, recently slammed the federal food-stamp program, noting that he derives his political wisdom from his grandmother, who taught him that it was foolish to feed stray animals.  Bauer stated,

“She told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why?” he asked, pausing for comedic effect. “Because they breed! You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce.”

They breed.  They breed like animals.  To anyone who grew up hearing the thinly veiled racist rhetoric with which affluent and middle-class white Southern people have historically justified callousness towards the needs of poor people—particularly poor people who happen to be brown or black—these are powerful encoded racist statements.

They are statements about who breeds like animals.  About whom the government (headed by an African-American president) is now trying to assist.  Giving our resources—our hard-earned tax dollars—to them in programs of social assistance like the food-stamp program.  And now he wants to do the same with our hard-earned tax dollars in the matter of health care.

I keep struggling to find my way, to discern a spiritual path, in the midst of such rhetoric.  I hear the gospel, and it instructs me—unambiguously so—to give my resources to the poor, to assist those who need healing, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger.

My culture—the culture in whose midst I live like someone living in the belly of a beast—frequently tells me something quite different.  And those imparting to me a message that contradicts what I hear in the gospels not uncommonly claim to be more religious, more connected to God, than the rest of us who struggle simply to keep our feet on the pilgrim path.

Reflections on Asceticism and the Spiritual Life

And why do I offer these two signposts to readers today?  I do so because I want to add a clarification to  the two postings I made here (and here) recently about ascetical practices of self-mortification that include self-flagellation, wearing barbed devices that cut into the skin, and sleeping on the floor with one’s arms outstretched.

Those two postings have generated lively discussion, as did the recent announcement that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation that sparked my postings.  As the discussion unfolds, it is becoming apparent to me that some readers are hearing me say something my postings did not say about asceticism.  Hence the following clarification . . . .

Some of those responding to my postings about practices like self-flagellation and wearing cilices appear to think that I am rejecting the notion of asceticism altogether as a valuable practice of the spiritual life.  That’s far from my point in these postings.  What I’m rejecting are practices that in my view (and in the view of increasing numbers of Christians in the postmodern period) depart from what’s central in the gospels, distort the Christian tradition, and even undercut attempts to live an engaged spiritual life.

It would be foolish to deny or ignore the importance of ascetical practices in the spiritual life.  Their value is well-attested in many religious traditions.  Jewish believers fast to observe Yom Kippur.  The Islamic world fasts for Ramadan.  As readers of my postings have noted, the Buddhist tradition (and other Eastern religions) have long recognized the significance of practices of ascetical discipline to enhance spiritual awareness.  Native American religious traditions employ fasting and other forms of corporal self-discipline to sharpen the spiritual focus of believers.  William James’s classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience demonstrates that ascetical practices such as fasting are valued cross-culturally, in all religious traditions of the world throughout history.

Central to my critique of how certain penitential practices tradition have come to dominate the view of the spiritual life within some Catholic movements is the claim that, following Vatican II, theology has tried to re-connect theologies of spirituality to the life and proclamation of Jesus and to the way that life and proclamation are remembered in the gospel stories.  And so since I’m writing this posting from the standpoint of one follower of Jesus who ponders the significance of that life, and who seeks to walk in the path Jesus sets before me as his follower, I want to ask how, How do I understand the call to take up my cross and walk after him?  To deny myself and live according to his way?

These questions are implicit in the responses and criticisms of some readers who have reacted to what I posted about John Paul II’s asceticism.  I owe it to those readers to struggle with these questions—and to be as honest as I know how to be as I respond to them.  And I should note that these reflections will lack finesse because I myself lack finesse.  They will be partial and unfinished because I myself am partial and unfinished.  They are reflections about the call to me to take up my cross and walk with Jesus.  What someone else hears in that call may well be different—and I honor that difference, even as I insist on the need to root our understanding of the ascetical life in the gospel narratives about the life and proclamation of Jesus.

First, I have a great deal of difficulty understanding spiritualities that set body and soul in opposition to each other, that see inflicting pain on one’s body in order to subjugate it to the soul as a valuable goal of the spiritual life, that see pain as glorious and desirable—an end in itself, in the Christian life.  I have a great deal of difficulty understanding those spiritualities because they do not connect in any intrinsic or organic way to the life of Jesus as I hear that life described in the gospels.

I understand, of course, where these spiritualities come from.  I can track their historical development within the life of the church.  I can clearly discern the strong influence that Greek philosophical notions of body and soul have had in Christian thought and practices from the point at which these philosophical notions embedded themselves in Christian thought.

But as a follower of Jesus called by my church at Vatican II to return to the fundamental sources of belief and practice, I look first and foremost to the gospels, as I think about the place asceticism should occupy in my life.  I look there first and foremost because the gospels are central to the fundamental sources of belief and practice in the church.  They are the very bedrock of belief and practice.

So I find it extremely significant, for my own struggle to live the Christian life in my world today, that I don’t read in the gospels that Jesus flogged himself or inflicted pain on himself for the sake of experiencing glorious pain.  I don’t read that Jesus glorified pain at all, in fact.

I don’t find in the gospels the story of a Jesus who attached himself primarily to the affluent and powerful, as so many of those who now promote a return to medieval practices of self-mortification in the Catholic church are inclined to do.  I read the story of a Jesus who found pain and suffering precisely because he made himself one with those whose daily lot already includes pain and suffering enough—enough that they would never dream of having to subjugate their flesh through practices like whipping themselves and wearing barbed chains to experience pain.

Asceticism in the Context of the Gospels and the Call to Discipleship

For me, the challenge of the life of Jesus—the hard challenge, which I fail over and over again—is to practice asceticism that connects me in a practical, real way to those who struggle in this world because they are powerless and without resources or social entrée.  As I understand Jesus himself to have done . . . .

Central to my struggle to live the ascetical life, then, is the call with which Jesus begins his ministry in Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:17-21).  This call frames his entire ministry, in the remembrance of Luke.  The author of Luke’s gospel remembered Jesus as a teacher for whom Isaiah’s proclamation of the Jubilee was central, formative.  Jesus makes Isaiah’s words about the Jubilee foundational to Jesus’s self-understanding, as he announces the arrival of the reign of God through his life, words, and actions.

In Luke’s remembrance of Jesus’s life, Jesus begins his ministry by reading (at Jesus’s own choice) a passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of Nazareth.  Isaiah announces the year of the Lord’s favor, a time in which the poor will hear good news, prisoners will be set free, and the blind will see.

Isaiah is speaking of the Jubilee, a practice mandated for the Jewish community by the Deuteronomic tradition—an ideal practice never actually practiced by the community, it appears.  Or at least not practiced in the radical way in which the Deuteronomic tradition imagined it should be practiced.

According to this practice, at the end of every seven years, the Jewish people would release all their slaves from slavery.  Those who held others in debt would cancel their debts.  The social order of the community would, as it were, begin anew, from the ground up, in a recurring sabbatical cycle that would prevent the accumulation of wealth and power by any particular group within the community.

Jesus begins his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading Isaiah’s description of the Jubilee.  And then he states that for those hearing him proclaiming the text, its promise had been fulfilled: in his proclamation.  In his life and deeds.

In response, the synagogue congregation of Nazareth drove him from their midst and threatened to hurl him from the hill on which their town was built.

The Jubilee proclamation of Isaiah 61 occurs in the context of a larger narrative about the obligations of the Jewish people to live their covenant with God through their social and economic connections to their brothers and sisters.  This larger narrative would surely have been apparent to those hearing Jesus equate his life and ministry with the Jubilee, when he read Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue.

Isaiah 58 states that the fasting God desires is the following: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of those unjustly yoked, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.  The fasting God honors is, Isaiah insists, to share one’s food with the hungry, to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, and to clothe the naked.

As I struggle to hear the gospel message in the context of the two signposts with which I began this posting—that is, as I struggle to hear (and then live) the gospel within the context of my own life, in the place in which I now find myself—these passages ring in my ears with a terrible resonance.  They point me to an asceticism that vastly transcends the demands of ascetical practices focused on self-punishing behaviors.

They remind me, to my shame, that I frequently encounter Jesus on the streets of my own city, and of other places I visit, and I ignore him.  There is—for me; I am speaking personally, not describing an ideal for anyone else’s spiritual life—a hard asceticism around the call to recognize Jesus in everyone I meet, and in particular, in the least among us.

I have to steel myself (and I am deeply ashamed to admit this) even to look at many of the indigent people I meet on the street.   Even to look.  Especially to look.

Because to look is to admit that I am encountering a person and not a thing.  To look is to grant that it is I myself standing there, in some other incarnation of my life, asking for handouts.

To look is to establish a connection that then implicates me.  To look, to see myself there—to see Jesus there—is to be implicated in what happens to the person I am encountering on the street, from whom I want to avert my eyes.  To look is to admit that I am already connected, that she is there, in part, because I am where I am.  My resources are connected to her indigence.

They are connected in that I have, and it is impossible to have to any degree surpassing the bare necessities of life, without depending on the exploitation of someone else.  My resources are connected to the person whom I do not want to see because I can make a difference in her situation, if I share my resources.

(I am not talking about a prescription for sharing.  I am talking about the fact of sharing—about the fact that we are called to share, over and over again, simply because someone else is in need.  And because we have.

Giving money is obviously not always the only or even the best way to share.  I once lived in a lay community of young men finishing college, who decided to invite a homeless alcoholic man to live with us one day.  We had just gone to Mass, walked out the door, and met this man begging.  We invited him to come home and eat with us.  That meal led to a year of his living with us, because he had no place to live.

I do not tell this story to celebrate who we were or what we did.  It ended with his returning to the streets, since his alcoholism caught hold of his life again, and we could not live with him at that point—four young men and one older man with a serious drinking problem, in a three-room apartment.  We may not have done this man any good at all.  We did what we thought we were called to do at that moment.

And so I tell this story to suggest that there are many ways to give, once we recognize the demand of the needy Other from whose eyes we would prefer to look away.)

There is, for me, an exceptionally hard asceticism in the demand to look into the eyes of an indigent person on the street, and to acknowledge the humanity he shares with me and the claim of that humanity on me, because I know, too, that I will see that face again one day—particularly if I look glancingly and pass the person by.  I will have no choice except to see that face which I have tried to ignore.

I will see that face at the end of my life, when I meet the Lord, because the Jesus who embraces me at the end of my life will have the face of the woman or the man I passed on the street many years ago, when I was too busy.  When I was too frightened.  When I did not have the courage to look.

All the faces of those I refused to see, whom I callously passed by, will be there, at the end of my life.  And all will be the faces of the Jesus whom I profess myself so eager to encounter.

For me, there’s an astonishing asceticism in the gospels.  And it has little or nothing to do with practices like self-flagellation.  It has to do with the awful, impossible, and unrelenting call to followers of Jesus to love.  Not to stop loving.

And to love not merely through what I say, but through what I do.


5 Responses

  1. What Catholic Christianity celebrates is Presence: The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; The Real Presence of Jesus in Others; The Real Presence of Jesus in the World. Vatican II attempted to recapture this central insight of the Incarnation: God-With-Us, Emmanuel. I note this unspoken theme in your reflection. Any ascetical practice one undertakes is to make this presence more palpable, obvious, and powerful in a Gospel Life. When one believes that God is present then one works to notice God wherever. When John says that God is Love and Paul reflects on the way(of Love) better than any other way the practical examples of presence naturally follow. Folks who do not want to believe that God is present wherever God choses to be present will work to manage this and forbid God the chance of surprise.
    “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick etc…?” To give up meat and eat lobster is hardly following Jesus. The comfort of the experience blocks out recognition of how needy we are. The ascetical practices of John Paul II may be an attempt to identify with the sufferings of the world but one must ask if these made the Pope more attuned to the presence of God already in the world. Being Shepherd Number One involves plenty of suffering already. I am inclined to doubt the value of his personal practices unless I see how these focused attention on the Real Presence of Jesus in the marginalized in the Church and in the World. Because John Paul II identified with the Opus Dei approach to life the embracing of the wider community of Jesus fell short. I remember well his hysterical denunciation of the Gay Pride March scheduled for the city of Rome as if somehow God could be better recognized in buildings rather than in people. When Jesus offered to touch the leper a statement was made that reaches the heart of the message: God is Present here in the most unlikely of situations. Let God surprise You! How much better if a touch would have been made to the pariah of modern society and Christ recognized therein. While I value the Catholic focus on Presence(what) I think the next step is an understanding of the reason for continuing incarnation(why).

    • Thank you for a powerful statement–and a beautiful meditation on presence, Mr. McNulty. You’re right that this is an unspoken theme in my own posting, but one that you bring to the surface and articulate more powerfully than I think I could have done.

      I particularly like your observation, “When one believes that God is present then one works to notice God wherever.”

      Yes, absolutely.

  2. Excellent thoughts. I really thought Andre Bauer’s comments were vile, as he clearly doesn’t give much of a thought for the less fortunate, and it looks that the shame is he will be the next governor of South Carolina. Bauer also has his own issues with self-acceptance.

    You also nailed what the insured and comfortable are really saying when they oppose any effort to expand health coverage to those without. All too often, the powers that be find it easy to splinter Americans on religious, racial, ethnic and gender lines, and it works only too well. I don’t think the socialites protesting the health insurance bill have stopped to think that they could lose everything overnight.

    • Excellent points, Kathy. You’re right, these economic (and political) forces splinter us into groups presumed to be antagonistic to each other. That’s how they do their dirty work and maintain dominance, by deluding us into thinking that we don’t have common cause in the struggle for a more humane society.

      And this way of thinking, which is deeply antithetical to the most basic presuppositions of Catholic social teaching, has really made inroads into the thinking of many American Catholics.

  3. Again, superb theological reflections on an aspect of spiritual traditions important to but not unique to Chrisitanity!


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