Mortification, asceticism, the whole season of Lent: is this simply spiritual masochism?
The first rejoinder: how questionable is the hegemonic cultural stance that finds self-discipline so strange! How many comfortable Westerners are strong enough to fast? How many are willing to put some skin in the game of "solidarity" and "social justice," and actually feel in the flesh some fragment of the immiserated existence of the dispossessed? If the question is how do we awaken hearts zombified by consumerism, surely some form of voluntary self-denial is an obvious answer.
It's not as if we're awash in a rising tide of asceticism that threatens to enervate human enterprise. In fact, from the unreal mansions and yachts of the super-wealthy down through every class in America, consumerist indifference to the cries of the weaker makes it far less likely that civilization advance and politics improve. It is love that raises monuments (especially of culture) to brave the erosions of time, and it is love that impels the tireless civic engagement necessary to build order time and again and again amidst the constant factional strains emanating from tyrants, demagogues, the crony capitalist nexus of corporate welfare rent-seekers and self-serving politicians, resentment-filled special interest groups (whose resentments may have ground enough) of both right and left.
If we're not fighting for some other group than our own, the ones less powerful, and that always at least means defending the bare life of the most powerless humans, the unborn and those threatened by euthanasia--if we're not fighting for the others, then we are only another special interest group, part of the Mexican standoff of group bias. Thus we have Donald Trump, and the pro-abortion demagogues of the left, and yes, thus we have the angry No to seeking some prudent way to be hospitable to the huddled masses of refugees, fleeing war or hunger.
That indeed is not Christianity. It doesn't even make it to the level of the basically humane.
We cannot hope to see this fact unless we enter upon the liberation that voluntary self-denial makes possible.
But only makes possible. "And though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (I Corinthians 13:3).
So, now we come to the question of getting asceticism right.
A false Christian otherworldliness, a naysaying flight from the world, runs screaming from time and space and history, from pleasure and politics and the other goods of this world, in a flattened Platonic projection of the Good into a supersensible heaven. Now, there's certainly enough to scream about, but if we understand the agony aright, ours and everyone else's, that should commit us even more to enter into the heart of the world: to become more virtuous, to rejoice in the abundance with which God surrounds us, to cultivate intense friendships, to bear and raise children, to deliberate with fellow-citizens concerning the common good, to engage the political process, to serve the powerless in a solidary descent of love, to create some marker within space and time of the truth, goodness, and beauty we have had the high honor to witness.
We are of no use to the dispossessed when we turn asceticism into a private salvation machine for rescuing the self. That is an inversion of true mortification, which is death to self so that we might serve the other's salvation.
And the false asceticism of moralism and rigorism, which shies away from the world's delights (ungratefully forgetting their origin and their conservation in, and their providential dispensation by, God), is based on the near-blasphemous, perverse theology of God as out to get us should we slip up here or there.
Yesterday's matins reading from Saint Ambrose's treatise on "Flight from the World" purifies and clarifies our yearning for the Kingdom of God.
"Where a man's heart is, there is his treasure also. God is not accustomed to refusing a good gift to those who ask for one. ...Let us reach out with our hearts to possess that good, let us exist in it and live in it, let us hold fast to it, that good which is beyond all we can know or see and is marked by perpetual peace and tranquility, a peace which is beyond all we can know or understand."
So far, so "Platonic," if we take that adjective to name a projection of all value beyond time and space. That, in fact, misses the basic point of Platonism, which is the renewal of ethics and politics, the ordering of the human soul through full-spectrum liberal arts education and the securing of the best political regime possible. Plato's own misgivings about how to reconcile the theory of forms with the multifariousness of time and space towards the end of his life were already pointing towards the ascendancy of prudence, a practical wisdom rooted in the heavens and growing downwards to bear fruit in this world.
Saint Ambrose provides a Christian continuation of that Platonic self-correction. Of that supersensible good he has just described, he goes on to say: "This is the good that permeates creation. In it we all live; on it we all depend. It has nothing above it; it is divine. No one is good but God alone. What is good is therefore divine; what is divine is therefore good. Scripture says: 'When you open your hand, all things will be filled with goodness.' It is through God's goodness that all that is truly good is given us, and in it there is no admixture of evil."
The personal goodness and particular providential care of God (which Jesus reveals and which the Greek philosophers did not see) maximally tightens the participation of the good things of this world in the Good that is God.
Indeed that participation is tightened to the point that it occurs WITHIN one Person, the Word of the Father, Jesus, Who spans in Himself the tension between eternity and time.
IN Christ, we may rest in the Goodness of God both in time and above time, so that fleeing the world can mean embracing the delight the good Father has actually suffused into creation. We drink from a fountain that overflows from heaven to earth, so that earth, this earth, may, precisely in its manifold goodness, simply present the one Goodness of God. This is our ethics; this our politics; our religion; our one desire: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
[This was originally posted on Facebook on February 28th.]