A New Asceticism

Remember the character Silas in The Da Vinci Code? He wore a sort of spiked garter called a cilice under his clothes, and in between murdering members of the Priory of Sion, he privately flogged himself. You can think of him as a caricature of the old asceticism, based on the Platonic notion that the body is the tomb of the soul, an obstacle to be overcome on the spiritual path. Through fasting, celibacy, and the kind of harm Silas inflicted on himself, the ascetic hoped to free his or her soul from the cage of the body.

After a bout of anorexia when I was a teenager, I have mostly resisted fasting as an adult; it’s as if two years of crazy dieting was enough to last me a lifetime. Nor have I been given to celibacy or self-flagellation (at least not the physical kind!). So I was happy to see Cyprian Consiglio’s suggestions for a new asceticism in his recent book Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality.

The main topic of the book is what he refers to as a new anthropology, the premise that “each human being is not just body and soul, but spirit, soul, and body, three interpenetrating realms of our being human“ (p. 72). I often hear the phrase “body, mind, spirit,” but Father Cyprian deliberately uses the word soul instead of mind to encompass not just the rational mind, but “all the strata of the soul, the psyche – the subconscious, higher states of consciousness, the collective unconscious, and psychic powers” (pp. 73-74). And what is the difference between soul and spirit? Father Cyprian explains that “the soul has the potential to open to something more, which is the pneuma, the spirit, the point where the human spirit opens on to the Spirit of God, the universal Spirit” (p.74).

Because the human body is interpenetrated with soul and spirit, the new asceticism suggested in this book cares for the body instead of punishing it. Father Cyprian recommends, for example, a healthy diet and daily exercise, especially practices like tai chi and yoga that help us recognize and strengthen the mind-body connection. (Assuming, as I do, that the antioxidants in dark chocolate and red wine are good for you, I’m well on my way as a modern ascetic!)

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Lest our spiritual practice become solipsistic, however, this new asceticism also asks us to think about the environment and social justice. Spirit, Soul, Body was published before Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical “on care for our common home,” but they share these themes. While a biologist can easily make a case for protecting the environment – we are part of the interconnected web of life on this planet, and what’s bad for the biosphere is bad for us too – Father Cyprian and Pope Francis argue in addition that the earth is sacred, and like the human body interpenetrated by soul, it is to be reverenced. The pope considers “soil, water, mountains: everything …, as it were, a caress from God” and goes on to quote the bishops of Brazil: “nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of [divine] presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship …” (¶ 84 and 88). Caring for the environment and working for human rights are sacred work.

So, as a practical matter, what does a new asceticism look like? Father Cyprian mentions a friend who uses the acronym SONG to help answer this question: “through our yoga, we reestablish right relationship with Self, Others, Nature, and God” (p. 112). As I consider my own life, I think I’m pretty good at self-care, but I need to focus a little more on the ONG in this spectrum. What if I gave away as much to charity as I spend on clothes? Shopped more at the farmer’s market and brought home less plastic packaging from Trader Joe’s? I could start composting, help out at the next beach cleanup, abstain from meat at least once a week (just like Lent!). And even though the new Mazda Miata I’ve noticed in the parking lot at work is gorgeous and enticing, maybe, just maybe, my next car will be hybrid or electric.

All around me is inspiration: the acquaintance who teaches nonviolent communication in prisons, friends who are vegans and vegetarians, my sister and brother-in-law who cycle almost everywhere they go. Please leave a reply if you’d like to share a practice that helps you stay in right relationship with self, others, nature, and God.

A Temple in Time

On the winter solstice a few days before I turned fifty, I rose before dawn, smudged with burning sage, and drove to a park overlooking the ocean where I could walk in silence and plan a ritual for my upcoming birthday. Although I didn’t know it then, my musings that morning turned out to be the genesis for this blog.

The sickle of the old moon hung in the eastern sky, and frost glazed the fields. As the sun rose over the hills behind me, I knelt and touched my forehead to the earth “for all my relations.” Two days earlier I’d asked a friend who was turning seventy if she had any words of wisdom to share. “Know yourself and accept who you are,” she answered. Her advice was in my mind as I pulled the hood of my down jacket up over my head and walked towards the ocean.

From the cliff I watched sandpipers on the beach below race away from an oncoming wave, then chase it as it receded, and they reminded me exactly of the frenetic way that I plunge into activities, then rush through them so I can hurtle into the next item on my to-do list. I work fulltime, I commute, and I never have time for everything I want to do: read novels, garden, knit a sweater, hike, cook dinner for friends, listen to my beloved play love songs on the ukulele … Sometimes I also worry about money and being alone in my old age and whether I’m a good enough person, but mostly I’m tormented by a lack of time. Who was I? A person afraid of not having enough.

Yet here I was looking out at the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean in a wide open morning lush with stillness and winter sunlight. The night before, my writing sisters had sent me off into the silence of this sacred world with laying on of hands and blessings, and now the whole day lay before me. How could I really feel that I didn’t have enough?

Then an NPR story I’d recently heard on my way to work suddenly came to mind: about how climate change is making the world’s oceans so acidic that many sea creatures can no longer survive there. I gazed out at the Pacific. From up here it looked peaceful and pure. Further out beyond the shelter of Monterey Bay gray whales were hurrying south to the lagoons of Baja where they would mate and give birth in a few months. This blue ocean that stretched further than my eye could see had always seemed to me like the great mother, the epitome of bounty, yet in her unseen depths the creatures that called her home might be dying.

We actually don’t have enough, I thought. Not enough clean air to keep our climate stable, not enough oil, food, water …

But on the heels of this thought followed a crucial phrase: we don’t have enough if we keep using it as we have been. If we as a species somehow decided to start being good stewards, there would be enough. Maybe not a superabundance, but enough. And what was true of the human population on the planet was true for me in my personal life too. Yes, there are limits. My time in this body is finite, and I can only do so much, but if I recognize my limits and use my time, energy, and money wisely, I have enough, not so much that I can squander it, but enough for what is important.

Is that what this blog is all about? Triage and time management? When I told my sister about “The Kingdom of Enough,” she said, “So it’s about simplifying your life?” Well, yes, I imagine writing about the virtues of thrift and sustainable living, but I also envision more. Life is short, and we live in a crazy, consumer culture that is busy bombarding us with demands and desires, yet in the cave of every heart peace reigns. I want to explore how to touch that grace.

Later on that winter solstice morning, I climbed down to the beach and collected small gray stones polished smooth by the ocean, cradled them in my hand and hoped the years were polishing me in the same way. A little cove offered a meditation spot, and for a long time I sat alone with the sound of the surf and chirping birds. I felt like I was in a temple in time. Yes, constraints exist for me as an embodied creature, but in the life of the spirit there are no clauses or caveats. The soul has all eternity, and the power of love is infinite.