Second Week of Lent: Askesis

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Feb 23, 2010 by Howard Baker | 0 Comments

Now that we are in the second week of both Lent and the Olympics, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the concept of askesis. The Christian spiritual tradition has taken this concept from the physical realm of exercise and training and applied it to life in the Spirit, to the life of discipleship to Jesus. As we watch the amazing “on the spot” performances of Olympic athletes flying down a ski run at 75 mph, dancing on ice skates, or literally risking their lives in some events, we are apt to forget the years of training of mind and muscle that produces that sort of athletic artistry. In a similar way, we can notice the depth of holiness, the alluring Christlikeness, and the sacrificial love of exemplary followers of Jesus and not realize the degree to which they cooperated with the Spirit’s work through well-chosen spiritual practices (their askesis) over a prolonged period of time. There are no overnight Olympians and certainly no overnight saints. Both require an appropriate askesis, training plan. The lenten season is a great time to evaluate, refine, and possibly intensify one’s askesis for a life of communion and mission with Jesus. Here are some selected quotes regarding askesis from a text that is quickly rising on my list of “transformational” books:

Ascesis means exercise, combat. Ascesis then is an awakening from the sleepwalking of daily life. It enables the Word to clear the silt away in the depth of the soul, freeing the spring of living waters.” (p. 130)

“The purpose of ascesis is thus to divest oneself of surplus weight, of spiritual fat." (p. 131)

Ascesis is not obedience to some abstract categorical imperative. It frees human nature to follow its deep instinct to ascend towards God. Ascesis is a response of love. It is a positive abandonment enabling Christ to purify us ‘as gold in the fire.’” (p. 132)

Ascesis requires discernment. To move from the blessings of this life, which are fundamentally good, to a radical demand to go beyond them, we must first have become aware of a higher perfection, and have received a pledge of God’s ‘sweetness.’ Lacking this discernment, ascesis is apt to be self-interested or Pharisaical, in danger of withering purposelessly between earth and heaven.” (p. 140)

“All ascesis, in fact, is magnetic attraction by love, by which we are conformed to the crucified Christ.” (p. 143)

“The mark of spiritual progress according to the greatest exemplars of ascesis is, therefore, evangelical love for one’s enemies. That is, first of all—something very simple but very difficult—the refusal to judge, the refusal to assert oneself by despising or condemning others.” (p. 144)

- Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism

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