The Role of Asceticism in the Christian Spiritual Journey

A degree of asceticism is as necessary to the spiritual life as a degree of discomfort is necessary to the natural life. Just as the body would fail if it did not have to meet and overcome heat and cold, so the spirit would fail if it did not have to meet and overcome luxury and weakness.

But whereas physical discomfort is something imposed by circumstance in the natural order, asceticism is something which is chosen for the love of God. The Christian ascetic is self-disciplined because he loves Christ and wants to resemble Him. The asceticism that is of compulsion will not take a soul far in the love of God.

The Christian must reason and will his way to the practice of asceticism—which means that he must love the ideal which asceticism proposes to him. He is not expected to love the exercises which asceticism demands of him—or they would be acts of self-indulgence instead of acts of self-denial—but he is expected to go out to meet them willingly.

One soul may embrace asceticism with zest and then find disgust in its continued practice; another may shrink from undertaking it and then find peace in persevering under it. One soul may feel a lifelong call to it; another may be drawn only by the thought of its necessity. What matters is the will to follow in the footsteps of Christ—and the spirit with which the soul tries to keep up.

Thus asceticism for the Christian is something more personal and more positive than what it is for the Buddhist or the Muslim. But in uniting his mortification with the Passion of Christ, the Christian should know that his act is not only an act of devotion to the Sacred Humanity, but is also an answer to religion’s universal summons to penance. The Jews were called by the prophets to atone for sin: we of the New Law have the advantage over the Jews in being called to share in the atonement of Christ.

Before even we take steps to see that “the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11), which is the goal of our ascetic endeavor, we must know that asceticism is not optional, not an activity of supererogation. Fundamentally, it is the system devised by God for the right ordering of self, and as such is a discipline that we must all bear.

Asceticism is the means by which we husband the energy that we intend to devote to the main activity of our lives. Having decided upon following one particular course from among those open to us, we deliberately restrain the powers and appetites which other interests would awaken. Asceticism is the balancing of natural and supernatural desires and choosing to follow the supernatural.

Though asceticism is accordingly an activity of the virtue of prudence, it may sometimes try to outstrip prudence in the ardor of its love. But the two must work together: both tend towards the same good; both are informed by the same light of the Holy Spirit.

The ascetic is often too much inclined to confuse natural and supernatural prudence, becoming scornful of both. Certainly, if he confined himself to being humanly prudent, he would get nowhere. But nor would he get anywhere if he neglected the prudence which is supernatural.

The virtue of asceticism may pester the virtue of prudence, but, once they agree on the course to be followed, there is swift advance in the virtue of love.

The virtue of prudence may, as a gift of the Holy Ghost, counsel greater austerity or less. In either case, the essentials of asceticism are safeguarded. There is no Christian asceticism that is not inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit. The ascetic who, without reference to grace and obedience, devises an asceticism of his own is not a religious man but an exhibitionist.

Christian asceticism, like Christian mysticism after it, rests upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit received by the soul in Baptism. If the mystical life is nothing else but the fullest development and manifestation of the graces conveyed to the soul at the moment of Baptism, the ascetical life is the same Christian life lived incompletely and in via (on the way).

The divine life of grace which all Christians must lead, if they would reach union with God, is the gospel life, the life of Christ. The only difference between the ascetical and mystical ways of leading this life is that, in the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the ascetic has not yet reached the maturity which he will enjoy when the complement to his present state is found in mysticism.

But it would be a mistake to think of asceticism as merely the preparation for the mystical life. It is also the preservative which keeps mysticism from getting out of hand, when the one stage has merged into the other. There is the tendency to look down upon asceticism as being elementary and inferior. If it were to stop at the door of the mystical life and go no further, it would be. But it is not meant to stop there.

You hear people dismissing Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ as “only” an ascetical work. They might as well recommend the Acts of the Apostles as a good travel book or speak of The Song of Solomon as “only” a love poem.

But though there is no one moment in the spiritual life when the mystical way parts company from the ascetical way, there is yet a clear distinction between the two concepts, mysticism and asceticism. Asceticism comes earlier in the soul’s development. Asceticism orients the soul; mysticism looks in the direction indicated.

Putting it at its lowest, asceticism is self-management. As such, it is the condition not only of the service of God but of human happiness. It is an accompaniment to the soul’s search for ultimate fulfillment in God, and it is an essential accompaniment.

On a higher plane it is the necessary condition for, and ingredient in, the discovery on earth of what is sought. Has any saint arrived at sanctity without having disposed himself towards it by the practice of the ascetical life? And, having arrived at sanctity, is there any saint who has discarded asceticism as being no longer necessary to him, as having no value in safeguarding what has been found?

The asceticism which does not find its fulfillment and continued expression in mysticism is a frame without a picture. One wonders whether, if it aimed at nothing more than the perfection of its own scheme, such an asceticism would be worth having. Perhaps it would, because an empty frame is better than no frame at all. At least it invites an artist to paint something to go inside it.

Asceticism may begin by being a routine, a frame in a workshop, but even then it is conceived in relation to the larger life of divine love, to the masterpiece which will hang upon the wall. Asceticism might be described as mysticism without contemplation.

Asceticism is the life of love lived in the habit of compunction rather than of contemplation.

Asceticism, subordinated to contemplation, is the life whereby man dies to the world and himself in order that the Resurrection of Christ may be more perfectly reflected in his soul.


This article on The Role of Asceticism in the Christian Spiritual Journey is adapted from the book The Inner Search by Dom Hubert Van Zeller which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on The Role of Asceticism in the Christian Spiritual Journey by Dom Hubert Van Zeller: cover used with permission; Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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