St John Vianney was an ascetic. Not only was he involuntarily poor, but he adopted a regime of asceticism in his quest for holiness and his battle against the devil.

A friend of mine commented recently that he didn’t think the Cure’s asceticism would be understood in our society.

Understatement of the year.

In affluent America most of us take for granted a level of self indulgence that would make the most lush Roman emperor blush.

We select the best food flown in from around the world, we dine in restaurants where we are pampered and flattered by the staff, we groom ourselves and feed ourselves and clothe ourselves just as we wish, and even the moderately poor in our society enjoy a standard of living that is plush.

We take it for granted, but I also find is strange that people in or society are willing to work, sweat, fast and put themselves through considerable pain and embarrassment– (you think the clothes people wear to the gym are flattering?) in order to get a firmer tummy, nice butt or better pecs, but they would consider celibacy, fasting and prayer to be weird religious fanaticism.

Others in our society are willing to endure rounds of expensive and painful surgery to get a better set of breasts, plumper lips, or a youthful looking face, but they’d consider an hour’s silence, giving up meat once a week or abstaining from sexual relations because you’re practicing natural birth control to be strange and dangerous religious extremism.

This is not to mention the athletes in sports-crazy America. They put themselves on strict diets, do physical training to get into shape, establish practice regimes that test their limits of endurance and regularly risk their careers, family lives and serious physical injury for what? A few moments of glory and a plastic trophy? And they think religious people are insane?

Which shall it be? Asceticism of athleticism?

The idea that one should make any sacrifice at all for one’s religion is almost dead within American Christianity. Religion is there, isn’t it, to make you happy, to make you feel better about yourself, to provide warm fellowship for you and your Christian chums, to reassure you that after a pain free victorious life in Jesus you will be on the express train to heaven and even more unimaginable happiness. Yes, American Christians do expect to make financial sacrifices as they tithe, but even then it is often seen as a form of investment. After all, “You can’t out give God. If you tithe regularly you will receive much more back in return and be even more prosperous.” Right?”

The idea that asceticism in any form should be part of one’s faith is lost on Protestants. This is because, once you are saved anything you do physically doesn’t matter anyway. You can’t earn your salvation, so why would you want to engage in asceticism? It’s true, that some non-Catholic forms of spirituality do put some premium on a mild form of asceticism. Some Protestants would endorse some low level fasting, but this is purely for utilitarian reasons. “Fasting,” the argument goes, “helps you concentrate when you are praying. It helps you to discipline the body and get focussed away from yourself and your stomach to God.”

All well and good, but the Catholic theology of asceticism is far more profound and mysterious. Why should we fast or engage in asceticism? Because by any suffering that we endure we are sharing in the cross of Christ and the glorious sacrifice of the martyrs. When we participate in asceticism we are not only disciplining our appetites and our bodies, we are cooperating with the grace of God to ‘complete the sufferings of Christ’ in the world. This is nothing we do of our own, and through our own power. Instead it is an application of God’s grace. It is a practical action in which what we do applies and ministers Christ’s ultimate sacrifice in the world for the redemption and salvation of the world.

This motivates and inspires me more and more as I come to understand and ponder more deeply the mystery of what I am doing in Christ as I celebrate the Mass each day. Increasingly the mystery of the cross and the dark face of evil is comprehensible to me only in the action of sacrifice. That sacrifice I offer brings Christ’s one full final sacrifice into the present moment. That sacrifice is linked with whatever small sacrifices of asceticism I might make in the world. That sacrifice fills and empowers whatever I might try in my halting way to do and say to complete Christ’s action of redemption in the world.

Somehow what I am trying to say is beyond words and yet we struggle to find the words and then must lapse into the asceticism of silence.

This sharing through sacrifice is not only active in and through asceticism. It is active in and through every action of love and sacrifice for the others with whom I live. For a Catholic who wants to be alive in the faith, every action. Every thought. Every choice becomes full of the grandeur of God.

Or else it becomes a dark, empty hole of everlasting darkness.

For the Catholic everything matters. Each action has an eternal consequence in a way that no other creed or belief can match.

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