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.

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Mary Camille Thomas

Mary Camille Thomas is a native of Santa Cruz, California who considers herself lucky to be back after living in Davis, Germany, Los Angeles, Holland, and on the road in a motorhome. She is a librarian by profession, but wanted to be a writer almost from the time she learned how to read. Her poetry has appeared in Sisters Singing: Blessings, Prayers, Art, Songs and Sacred Stories by Women, and she is currently working on a collection of poems of the spirit.

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