"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Culture of Asceticism

Given David Fagerberg's recent excellent book (which I recently finished and reviewed for Nova et Vetera) as well as a few others either recently published or soon to emerge, it seems that there has been a recent upsurge in interest in "asceticism," which rather raises all sorts of interesting questions. One very much hopes that this is not the Christian spiritual equivalent of the latest "fad diet" that will soon be dropped in pursuit of whatever trend next emerges promising "spiritual enlightenment."

When it comes to asceticism broadly understood, I regularly hear some very good questions from my students, the Catholics especially, who wonder why it is that, in today's world, eating a $10 piece of salmon on Friday is somehow "ascetical" or constitutes "fasting" while eating a $3 chicken breast does not. Over which does God scruple more--the money spent or the nature of the flesh consumed? How, in a state like Indiana far from the oceans, is spending a lot of money to eat shrimp or scallops or, better yet, lobster, in keeping with Great Lent whereas eating pork or chicken or even beef is not? The best answer to such questions, I think, was suggested by my friend the Orthodox priest and theologian Michael Plekon: the important thing is to eat simply so as to free up money to give to the poor and free up time to give to prayer. If grabbing a cheap burger allows both to happen, but preparing an elaborate tofu and quinona concoction does not, then perhaps one ought to go with the former. But doing so is an individual decision when fasting and abstinence are also communal or ecclesial practices and if there is a change then perhaps we should all change together.

Given periodic shifts in ascetical practices, discussed in a book just published this week, perhaps it is time to revisit these issues today--an item, as some Orthodox have suggested, for the agenda of the council in the works lo these many decades:  Blake Leyerle and Robin Darling Young, eds.,  Ascetic Culture: Essays in Honor of Philip Rousseau (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 416pp.

About this book we are told:
Ascetic Culture honors Philip Rousseau’s pathbreaking work on early Christian asceticism in a series of essays exploring how quickly the industrious and imaginative practitioners of asceticism, from the early fourth through the mid-fifth century, adapted the Greco-Roman social, literary, and religious culture in which they had been raised. Far from rejecting the life of the urban centers of the ancient world, they refined and elaborated that life in their libraries, households, and communities.
The volume begins with a discussion of Egyptian monastic reading programs and the circulation of texts, especially the hugely influential Life of Antony. A second group of essays engages the topic of disciplinary culture in ascetic spaces such as the monastery, the household, and the city. A third group focuses on the topic of imaginary landscapes and ascetic self-fashioning. Ascetic Culture concludes by surveying the scholarly study of asceticism over the last one hundred and fifty years, arguing that previous generations of scholars have regarded asceticism either as a product of the inner dynamism of early Christianity or as a distortion of its earliest aims. Together, the contributors recognize, reflect upon, and extend the themes explored in Rousseau’s work on early Christianity’s ascetic periphery—a region whose inhabitants reflect in various ways the aspirations of their religion, from the daily to the otherworldly.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...