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 Post subject: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 05, 2012 6:40 pm 
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Is [extreme] asceticism a sin? I would think it is. I'm referring specifically to the notion of rigorous self-denial--that is, the act itself. I am ignoring the possibility that asceticism can be a means of achieving a higher spiritual state, for simply, if it is sinful, then it cannot by definition be such a means.

Further, I am not referring to merely temporary fasts (whether they be fasts from food, sex, etc.), nor am I referring to the permanent intentional giving up of certain non-essential pleasures. I would have no problem, for instance, with a person who chose to give up a particular hobby that they found particularly distracting and instead devoting that time to prayer or studying Scripture (cf. Matt. 5:29). Here, I think the "ascetic" would need to be careful about his motives more than anything else.

I am referring, again, to the type of self-mortification and self-denial that people permanently inflict upon themselves that revolve around the denial of basic bodily needs (food, shelter, etc.). That seems to me intrinsically sinful. To embrace such a lifestyle for the express purpose of achieving a higher spiritual state seems to complicate and compound the error, not justify it.

I ask because I'm reading a book by an evangelical author that seems to have a somewhat positive regard of asceticism (at least, his critique is rather muted if nothing else), and it got me thinking about the question formally. Obviously, there have been Christians throughout history that have practiced it. It is commonly practiced by more than a few religions still today.

So, thoughts?

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 05, 2012 6:48 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 05, 2012 6:53 pm 
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Certainly the more rigorous the asceticism, the more caution is needed. I do think that God has, at times, given special graces to certain individuals to perform acts of mortification that would be dangerous for others. There are stories of saints who went a year without eating except the Eucharist. Certainly if we accept that as true, we would see it as miraculous, and not something someone can just decide to do on their own.

In less extreme cases, those who exposed themselves more to the elements, etc., than would normally be safe may indeed have a special calling and disposition to live a life in conformity to the suffering Christ. But it would be hubris, let alone dangerous, for me to decide to do the exact thing.

I think, rather than saying that the abstention or denial of such things is inherently evil, it is better said that mortification that arises to the level of mutilation, or severely impairs the health of the body or mind, is gravely sinful. It is the wilful behavior leading to harm that is sinful. In those cases where, like the Cure d'Ars, one can function without detriment on 2 hours of sleep a night, or other things of that sort, we should recognize those as extraordinary cases and not to be taken upon ourselves, save with due care of health and direction of a spiritual guide.

We should also bear in mind that, on a purely psychological and physiological level, the kind of denial that some permanently practice could not be "jumped into" without grave harm, though it is not such for those who practice it now. I am thinking of Carthusians. Besides having to be in good health to join, you do not enter into even their standard penitential life all at once, but very gradually, and with the constant attention of a spiritual director and the order to ensure you can handle it. Not all can, and those that do must acclimate their very bodies to it to avoid harm.

And with things like the cord or other forms of mortification, that involve physically punishing the body, no one can take that upon himself without outside eyes. Even Bl. Junipero Serra was reprimanded for becoming too zealous in using the scourge on himself. He carried it to the point of detriment.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 05, 2012 7:23 pm 
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Malleus Haereticorum wrote:
Certainly the more rigorous the asceticism, the more caution is needed. I do think that God has, at times, given special graces to certain individuals to perform acts of mortification that would be dangerous for others. There are stories of saints who went a year without eating except the Eucharist. Certainly if we accept that as true, we would see it as miraculous, and not something someone can just decide to do on their own.

In less extreme cases, those who exposed themselves more to the elements, etc., than would normally be safe may indeed have a special calling and disposition to live a life in conformity to the suffering Christ. But it would be hubris, let alone dangerous, for me to decide to do the exact thing.

I think, rather than saying that the abstention or denial of such things is inherently evil, it is better said that mortification that arises to the level of mutilation, or severely impairs the health of the body or mind, is gravely sinful. It is the wilful behavior leading to harm that is sinful. In those cases where, like the Cure d'Ars, one can function without detriment on 2 hours of sleep a night, or other things of that sort, we should recognize those as extraordinary cases and not to be taken upon ourselves, save with due care of health and direction of a spiritual guide.

We should also bear in mind that, on a purely psychological and physiological level, the kind of denial that some permanently practice could not be "jumped into" without grave harm, though it is not such for those who practice it now. I am thinking of Carthusians. Besides having to be in good health to join, you do not enter into even their standard penitential life all at once, but very gradually, and with the constant attention of a spiritual director and the order to ensure you can handle it. Not all can, and those that do must acclimate their very bodies to it to avoid harm.

And with things like the cord or other forms of mortification, that involve physically punishing the body, no one can take that upon himself without outside eyes. Even Bl. Junipero Serra was reprimanded for becoming too zealous in using the scourge on himself. He carried it to the point of detriment.

What I am getting from reading you here is

1) Whatever your mortifications, be temperate. That is, do not practice your asceticism in such a way that it "severely impairs the health of the body or mind," and
2) Some mortifications that may be considered "extreme" (or non-temperate!, but rather excessive!) are really miracles, and as such, are not sinful for the ones practicing them (since they are really acting on the power of God).

Concerning the former, that is why I qualified my discussion to extreme asceticism. Of course, here, the question naturally arises as to when something becomes extreme, but I don't think that's too hard to answer. Your own words suggest it: when your practice begins to severely impair the health of the body or mind. So I may go a night without sleep for prayer (Jesus did it); but to commit myself to no sleep until I physically pass out seems extreme, especially if I commit to that as a practice (since sleep deprivation has serious long term physical and mental affects). The same could be said about any such "discipline."

Concerning the latter, I'm not sure where stories like the one Obi linked to would fit in. Simeon certainly doesn't appear very temperate in his asceticism. I see nothing whatsoever "wonderful" in them (to use the word the article does). His is just the kind I have to admit I find very disturbing. There seems to be nothing here physically impossible (e.g., not eating for a year). He seems to just be fanatically devoted to his asceticism. But if you read that article, it is clear that he severely impaired his health. He was nursed back to health on multiple occasions, without such care he would have died. So how does that fit into the picture?

It's hard for me not to see some Gnostic undertones to all this. I realize that the spirit is at war with the flesh (whatever we interpret that to mean), and that more concretely the flesh has to be subdued in its desires, those desires submitted to the spiritual life. But the body is not bad in and of itself, as we should all well know, and to deprive the body of basic good seems, to me, to have an abysmally love view of the body. And given that God created the body, that seems to have an abysmally low view of God's creation, which seems to me sin.

In short, I can easily justify temporary self-denial so that we are prepared to ignore the flesh's sinful desires when certain passions are inflammed. But that view makes such self-denial functional in nature. I can't justify the Simeon's ascentism on such grounds.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Sun Jul 08, 2012 6:37 am 
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Quote:
What benefit, what divine delight, solitude and the silence of the hermitage bring to those who love them, only those who have experienced them can tell. Yet, in choosing this, the best part, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church, where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation.

If therefore we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut in on themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God. This continual effort to be always — as far as human frailty permits — very close to God, unites us in a special way with the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we are accustomed to call the Mother in particular of all Carthusians.

Making him who is, the exclusive center of our lives through our Profession, we testify to a world, excessively absorbed in earthly things, that there is no God but him. Our life clearly shows that something of the joys of heaven is present already here below; it prefigures our risen state and anticipates in a manner the final renewal of the world.

By penance, moreover, we have our part in the saving work of Christ, who redeemed the human race from the oppressive bondage of sin, above all by pouring forth prayer to the Father, and by offering himself to him in sacrifice. Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of a very high order, since we strive to follow Christ in this, the inmost heart of his saving task.

Wherefore, in praise of God — for which the hermit Order of Carthusians was founded in a special way — let us dedicate ourselves to the peace and silence of our cells and strive to offer him unceasing worship, so that, sanctified in truth, we may be those true worshippers whom the Father seeks.
--From the Constitutions of the Carthusian Order

The task of those called to severe asceticism is to remind the rest of us, even if we are not "excessively absorbed in earthly things," that there is more to life than earthly things. They remind most of us that we aren't nearly mortified enough.

I also suggest that we live in an age of the cult of the body, where taking care of the body is a societal priority. Think what would happen if people applied themselves to faith with the diligence with which they pursue the latest ideas in proper diet, exercise, etc. This touches the thinking even of Christians and it has a negative effect on our ability to appreciate asceticism.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:58 am 
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Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
Quote:
What benefit, what divine delight, solitude and the silence of the hermitage bring to those who love them, only those who have experienced them can tell. Yet, in choosing this, the best part, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church, where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation.

If therefore we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut in on themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God. This continual effort to be always — as far as human frailty permits — very close to God, unites us in a special way with the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we are accustomed to call the Mother in particular of all Carthusians.

Making him who is, the exclusive center of our lives through our Profession, we testify to a world, excessively absorbed in earthly things, that there is no God but him. Our life clearly shows that something of the joys of heaven is present already here below; it prefigures our risen state and anticipates in a manner the final renewal of the world.

By penance, moreover, we have our part in the saving work of Christ, who redeemed the human race from the oppressive bondage of sin, above all by pouring forth prayer to the Father, and by offering himself to him in sacrifice. Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of a very high order, since we strive to follow Christ in this, the inmost heart of his saving task.

Wherefore, in praise of God — for which the hermit Order of Carthusians was founded in a special way — let us dedicate ourselves to the peace and silence of our cells and strive to offer him unceasing worship, so that, sanctified in truth, we may be those true worshippers whom the Father seeks.
--From the Constitutions of the Carthusian Order

The task of those called to severe asceticism is to remind the rest of us, even if we are not "excessively absorbed in earthly things," that there is more to life than earthly things. They remind most of us that we aren't nearly mortified enough.

I also suggest that we live in an age of the cult of the body, where taking care of the body is a societal priority. Think what would happen if people applied themselves to faith with the diligence with which they pursue the latest ideas in proper diet, exercise, etc. This touches the thinking even of Christians and it has a negative effect on our ability to appreciate asceticism.

I've picked up, I think, the argument for asceticism generally and for ascetics themselves is that they have a specific function in the Church. So just as there are preachers and administrators and evangelists, etc., there are ascetics, and they play their own part in the Body.

That's fine. I can accept that as far as it goes. But I can't help but focus on the words I emphasized in your reply. I don't want to read anything into your words to make you say something that you are not. I agree with what you've said there. I suspect, though, that you would agree with me in saying taht taking care of the body is more than a societal priority (again, I agree with the statement you said, though--give the "cult of the body" it certainly is a, if not the, priority). It's a spiritual priority. Indeed, it's a good Christian priority. The problem with modern society is the place, I think, that they give that priority relative to other priorities. Certainly, if we paid half as much attention to our souls as Hollywood pays to our abs, we'd all be much better off!

But preachers and evangelists and administrators and others who perform certain functions in the Body do not neglect (certainly not permanently or extremely!) other priorities. Preachers still pray. Administrators still disciple. Evangelists still administrate. Emphasizing one function does not, it seem to me, justify the injury of another. So if ascetics are emphasizing attention to spiritual matters, how does that justify injuring the body? That seems to me to say that we can intentionally harm the body to bring about some spiritual good. Or, perhaps not so strongly, we can engage in acts that we know will result in harm to the body if practiced too rigorously for too long, and we do this for some spiritual good. But that seems to deny a more basic premise I find intuitive, namely, that when two goods are in competition, while we may be forced in choosing one to neglect the other, we are never to intentionally injure the one in pursuit of the other.

In short, we are to take care of our bodies. If cutting myself is wrong because it harms that which is good--and God created the body good--then cutting myself in penance would seem to me just as wrong! An athlete disciplines his body to make it better. He does not injure one part of the body so that he can better focus on another. Or again, I spank my daughter to teach her to obey (that is, to teach her that there are consequences for disobedience). But we should all admit a difference in spanking and child abuse.

So given all you've said above, and all I've read in this thread, I can see a strong argument for, say, prayer warriors or perhaps those who choose to live a more cloistered lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of modern daily life, who spend their time in fasting and prayer; who frequently abstain from sexual relations with their spouses (or from marriage altogether); who live simply and frugally, who work hard, and give all extra to the poor; who live in communities where resources can be shared to maximize how much they can give; who spend extra hours in the study of Scripture, etc. But in all of that, I see no basis to go on to harm the body. There is no shortage of stories of highly acclaimed ascetics who died or at least suffered as a result of the injuries their mortifications produced. Such still seems sinful to me.

I don't mean to sound as if I have made up my mind on this particular issue. I probably have, but I do want to understand those who have a differing view. Can you at least point out where my thinking has diverged from traditional arguments on this matter?

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 11:18 am 
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jac3510 wrote:
But preachers and evangelists and administrators and others who perform certain functions in the Body do not neglect (certainly not permanently or extremely!) other priorities. Preachers still pray. Administrators still disciple. Evangelists still administrate. Emphasizing one function does not, it seem to me, justify the injury of another. So if ascetics are emphasizing attention to spiritual matters, how does that justify injuring the body? That seems to me to say that we can intentionally harm the body to bring about some spiritual good. Or, perhaps not so strongly, we can engage in acts that we know will result in harm to the body if practiced too rigorously for too long, and we do this for some spiritual good. But that seems to deny a more basic premise I find intuitive, namely, that when two goods are in competition, while we may be forced in choosing one to neglect the other, we are never to intentionally injure the one in pursuit of the other.

In short, we are to take care of our bodies. If cutting myself is wrong because it harms that which is good--and God created the body good--then cutting myself in penance would seem to me just as wrong! An athlete disciplines his body to make it better. He does not injure one part of the body so that he can better focus on another. Or again, I spank my daughter to teach her to obey (that is, to teach her that there are consequences for disobedience). But we should all admit a difference in spanking and child abuse.

If thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell-fire.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 12:03 pm 
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No, as a matter a fact I wouldn't agree that it's a spiritual priority. Careless neglect is a problem, but not necessarily considered asceticism.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 9:25 pm 
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gherkin wrote:
If thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell-fire.

I've always taken that as a bit of hyperbole. Don't you?

Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
No, as a matter a fact I wouldn't agree that it's a spiritual priority. Careless neglect is a problem, but not necessarily considered asceticism.

Really? Perhaps we're using 'spiritual' differently. You don't take it as a basic, essential good that we take care of our bodies (1 Cor 3:16-17 for a Christian mandate, natural law aside)? I don't see how, if we are required to care for our bodies, that intentionally injuring it is anything less than deeply sinful.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:15 pm 
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Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
No, as a matter a fact I wouldn't agree that it's a spiritual priority. Careless neglect is a problem, but not necessarily considered asceticism.


Today's Gospel (Tues) seems to speak directly in keeping with that. Matthew 16 24-27…

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Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 11:38 pm 
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jac3510 wrote:
gherkin wrote:
If thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell-fire.

I've always taken that as a bit of hyperbole. Don't you?



No, it isn't....Jesus is being quite serious here, no he is not commanding people to mutilate themselves, but when he says that you would be better off cutting off your hand than sinning, or plucking out your sins than sinning, he is being quite serious. Eternal damnation is the absolute worst thing that can happen to anyone, any other thing that might happen to you pales in comparison. He is talking about priorities, and he is quite serious when he says that the state of your soul is more important than the state of your body.


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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 7:30 am 
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jac3510 wrote:
Really? Perhaps we're using 'spiritual' differently. You don't take it as a basic, essential good that we take care of our bodies (1 Cor 3:16-17 for a Christian mandate, natural law aside)? I don't see how, if we are required to care for our bodies, that intentionally injuring it is anything less than deeply sinful.
The basic essential good is the salvation of souls. Attachment to earthly things is an impediment to that. I would be extremely cautious in giving someone permission to engage in potentially harmful asceticism, but it is not out of the question that God could ask someone to sacrifice bodily health for the sake of his salvation or that of others.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 8:32 am 
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Doom wrote:
No, it isn't....Jesus is being quite serious here, no he is not commanding people to mutilate themselves, but when he says that you would be better off cutting off your hand than sinning, or plucking out your sins than sinning, he is being quite serious. Eternal damnation is the absolute worst thing that can happen to anyone, any other thing that might happen to you pales in comparison. He is talking about priorities, and he is quite serious when he says that the state of your soul is more important than the state of your body.

I'm sorry. I don't buy it. Your body parts don't cause you to sin. Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that if something is causing you to fall into sin, then get rid of it. If a person has, for instance, sexual addictions, Jesus wouldn't be the least impressed if they castrated themselves.

Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
The basic essential good is the salvation of souls. Attachment to earthly things is an impediment to that. I would be extremely cautious in giving someone permission to engage in potentially harmful asceticism, but it is not out of the question that God could ask someone to sacrifice bodily health for the sake of his salvation or that of others.

Well at least I've gotten the Catholic answer. Suffice it to say that I deeply disagree. If this is true, then it's not out of the question that God could ask someone to commit any given sin for the sake of his salvation or that of others. The end doesn't justify the means, and if intentionally injuring the body is a sin (as I have argued it is), then the end of someone's personal salvation doesn't justify such sinful means.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 8:34 am 
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jac3510 wrote:
I've always taken that as a bit of hyperbole. Don't you?

I don't think that citing that passage fully settles the matter at hand, if that's what you mean. But I do think that when you read what you wrote, and then read what our Lord said, you'll see that they don't easily hang together. Our Lord doesn't seem to be expressing anything like the kind of thoughts you were expressing. That strikes me as significant. I thought it might so strike you, as well, since you are working on understanding asceticism. If not, then nevermind.

You will notice, by the way, that I have carefully avoided saying anything here like "I agree with Doom." :fyi:

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 8:39 am 
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jac3510 wrote:
The end doesn't justify the means, and if intentionally injuring the body is a sin (as I have argued it is), then the end of someone's personal salvation doesn't justify such sinful means.

Injuring the body is clearly not a sin. If it were, then surgery would be sinful. What makes surgery non-sinful is the intent of the injury. The physician cuts the body open and mutilates it in order to make the person more healthy. He hasn't sinned (that is, injured the body) in order to make the person healthy. He has done something indifferent in itself in order to make the person healthy. To take a more radical case, capital punishment is not sinful, nor is corporal punishment (I mean here flogging a prisoner, not spanking a child...although that, too), given the right conditions.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 8:40 am 
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jac3510 wrote:
Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
it is not out of the question that God could ask someone to sacrifice bodily health for the sake of his salvation or that of others.

Well at least I've gotten the Catholic answer. Suffice it to say that I deeply disagree.
As Obi implies, mortification attains its worth from the works of Christ and is an imitation of his suffering and penance in reparation for sin. The practice of asceticism falls under a universal Christian duty of mortification which arises because of the fallen condition of humanity.
jac3510 wrote:
Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that if something is causing you to fall into sin, then get rid of it.
I disagree. Jesus isn't taking about "something causing you to sin." He's talking specifically about the body. Mortification, a chastising and restraining of the body, is the necessary accompaniment of interior penance because a person can hardly reform himself spiritually without exterior reformations. Purely intellectual repentance is impossible. Fallen man must be mortified to be born again.


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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2012 7:19 pm 
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This point possibly illustrates the fundamental difference between Catholicism and other Christian faiths in so far as through the mystery of the Eucharist, Jesus is with us here today as truly as He was with those who lived 2000 years ago. It means the difference between empathising with an idealogy recorded in the Bible and empathising with the suffering Jesus Himself.

If someone doesn't eat food as part of the 40 hour famine for the starving in Africa, it has a different quality to a starving African mother who doesn't eat food in order that her babies get enough to survive another day. Both are deliberate, but have a different effect. One is removed in love, the other is there in love.

Jesus suffers in the world today not 'over and over'... but 'still'. He is in the Garden of Gethsemene suffering a great agony and He wants us to be with Him awake and attentive so that by feeling His pain, we can help take the weight. He is walking the road to Calvary and by us taking the weight of the Cross over our suffering bodies, we share His burden and mission.

Simone Weil demonstrates the 'with-ness' through empathy really well. She starved herself in the end, unable to take her fill of food while so many of her countrymen suffered in her time. Her impulse to practice asceticism in this way, led her down the way of suffering Christs passion through her own body and to specifically to identify as Catholic in her faith life although she never converted and died by the age of 34.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 1:18 pm 
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How about 1 Cor 9:24-27?

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 1:34 pm 
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Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote:
it is not out of the question that God could ask someone to sacrifice bodily health for the sake of his salvation or that of others.

Yes, consider St. Francis of Assisi or, for more recent examples, St. John Neumann or St. Damien de Veuster.

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 Post subject: Re: Asceticism
PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 1:42 pm 
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St. Francis was one I had in mind.

One could also point to priests around the turn of the 20th Century. Father McGivney died at age 38; Fr. Tolton was 33. I believe it's mentioned in Fr. McGivney's bio that the life expectancy of a parish priest at that time was something in the mid-40s because of the amount of time they spent visiting the sick with poor sanitation.

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