Over the past several decades, Church praxis in the United States and many Church leaders have been promoting the tolerance of spiritual laxity as an essential dimension of evangelization. Seeking to value secular relevance more than fidelity to Divine Revelation, this trend and its advocates have detoured many souls from developing an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ for the sake of promoting ever evolving secularized 'Gospel values." They seduce souls from taking too seriously Christ's teaching that those who love Him will keep His commandments and faithfully teach all that He has commanded.
This trend has been especially evident in incremental de facto degradation of people's appreciation of the importance of an ongoing discipline of ascesis (i.e., spiritual disciplines based on reverence for the integrity of truth and for our call to intimacy with God) in the spiritual life of the Church and of each of her members. For example, over the past sixty years, we have witnessed a profound rejection of the Biblical discipline of prayer and fasting. Instead, we have come to expect spiritual growth to be nurtured by prayer and feasting, guided by a compulsive urge to stay ever relevant to the fads, fashions, and fetishes of secular society.
Downplaying the awkwardness of the central mystery and dynamic of Christ crucified, many have sought to systematically stress the victory of the risen Christ as a reality that has already come to full fruition. They thus ignore the fact that each of us must continue to embrace our share in the cross of Christ while living in the hope of the resurrection. This leads to a tendency to develop spiritual commitments on the basis of how those commitments promote the comfort, convenience, and contentment for everyone.
Thus, among other things, we have witnessed the following:
1) the decrease of the Eucharistic fast to merely one hour, and that is often violated by those who insist on their right to chew gum or suck on candy during Mass;
2) the ending of the traditional ember day fasting;
3) the limiting of the traditional discipline of Lenten fasting to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday;
4) the limitation of abstinence to Ash Wednesday, Fridays in Lent, and Good Friday;
5) the transfer of Ascension from Thursday to the next Sunday; and
6) the elimination of obligation for participating at Mass on holy days that fall on Saturday or Monday:
7) Catholics, who have without serious reason missed participation at Sunday Mass, routinely receiving Holy Communion in spite of such a serious violation of the Third Commandment; and
8) Catholics, who routinely violate Christ's teaching on the sacredness of marriage, of sexuality and of human life routinely rejecting the obligation to repent and receiving Holy Communion in a state of serious sin.
In addition, when St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday in Lent, we frequently see the faithful granted a dispensation from the obligation to fast.
Sadly, all these practices tend to deceive souls into thinking that it is possible to be a disciple without submitting to the disciplines of truth. Discipleship is viewed by many as merely having a good emotional link with Jesus as each person conceives Him to be, rather than as Mary conceived Him to be. Thus they follow their emotions and sense of relevance, rather than the truths and disciplines required for authentic discipleship. Thus, as Jesus and His teachings are increasingly treated as a spiritualized form of the Rorschach test, respect for Him degenerates from reverently obeying Him as our Master to merely using Him as a mascot to support our own personal agendas, perspectives and lifestyles.
The fruit of this gradual atrophy of discipline has been the degradation of the life-giving dynamic of Catholic faith disciplines to the point where the Church Militant acts more like the Church Milquetoast. This decline is further accelerated by those who teach that we can spread the Gospel by merely promoting an appreciation for beauty, with such beauty conveniently divorced from authentic goodness and eternal truth. But this leads only to a religion of emotional gratification, whereby reverence for the sacred is supplanted by sentimentality, relevance and a sense of fulfillment. Here again, the doctrine of the cross of Christ has become downgraded to the patient endurance of awkward or painful situations that cannot be avoided.
All the above avoids confrontation with a basic truth of human development. Aesthetics without ascesis leads to the spiritual laziness and atrophy, which the Church Fathers called acedia. Without ascesis, we cannot truly enjoy the blessings of Creation. We can only truly enjoy something if we are willing and able to forego the enjoyment of that pleasure for the sake of a greater good. Otherwise, what we call "enjoyment" will merely be our compulsive appeasement of our addictions to the thrills and pleasure that we can derive from them.
Likewise, without ascesis, we remain blinded to the deeper dimensions of beauty, truth, and goodness. Ascesis helps us to tangibly realize our freedom as God's children. Likewise, it helps us to appreciate that, while discipline without discipleship can be experienced as tyranny, discipleship without the discipline of truth often leads to spiritual fickleness and anarchy.
Ascesis also is important for helping us to grow in a holistic manner. It makes us realize that we need to nurture both our souls and our bodies. We cannot gratify the flesh without weakening the spirit. And we cannot nurture the soul without mortifying the flesh. Sadly, too many today are suffering from a degenerative spiritual malnutrition by feeding primarily on the junk food of the flesh.
As one preacher poetically put it, "Just because something is delicious, does not mean it is nutritious." Or as our mothers used to tell us, "Eat your vegetables." Thus it is that, through the ages, Holy Mother Church has insisted that we need to nourish the spirit as well as the flesh by embracing regular acts of mortification, by setting aside time for silence and prayer, and by inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of others.
As an aside, it is worth noting how many who engage in martial arts proclaim that pain is fear leaving the body. Ironically, this tends to confirm the fact that perfect love cast out all fear. The fear that we cannot live without appeasing our addictions to alcohol, drugs, entertainment, music, sexual gratification, computer games, gossip, etc. can only be driven from our souls by following the lead of the Holy Spirit as He leads us with Jesus into the desert and the disciplines of ascesis. There is no other way to authentic salvation and fulfillment than Christ's way of the cross.
It should be noted, finally, that the spirit of ongoing repentance, which permeates ascesis, opens the way to authentic respect for ourselves and
others. In this way, authentic reconciliation, not the "reconciliation" of repressed resentments, can come to fruition in all dimensions of our shared humanity. This is especially important to note, as there is a strong movement in the America and Europe to force the Church to ratify as legitimate the divorce of consciences from accountability to authentic truth - a truth that can only be properly appreciated through the sacred disciplines of ascesis. But, while this may give some souls a temporary sense of relief, it will never be able to infuse into them that peace which is the Holy Spirit's gift to the pure of heart.
After all, salvation cannot be realized by developing innovative excuses for sin or by promoting the arrogance of festering resentments in the human heart. Even when our infidelity leads us astray, the fidelity of the Holy Spirit continues to call us back to the harbor of truth through the awkwardly beautiful mystery of the cross of Christ. May God mercifully grant all of us a renewed appreciation of the importance of the disciplines of ascesis for the development of integral human lives and relationships, as well as for our eternal salvation in Christ.
Spero News columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.