Now that Lent is well on its way, let’s talk about asceticism, or, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline.” We tend to think of this as something difficult. We pass it by as the domain of monks and saints, but on some level it’s the vocation of every Christian. It can be compared to a kind of spiritual athleticism. After all, it comes from the Greek word ἄσκησις (askesis), which literally means athletic training. St. Paul talks about this spiritual athleticism when he writes, “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor 9:25). Aside from this meaning, it has also been called, “the science of Christian perfection.” It responds to Jesus’ call to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). This is a scary passage because we often think of perfection as daunting. It’s impossible to go through life without making mistakes, and trying to avoid every little mistake will reduce someone to a neurotic mess. Jesus doesn’t mean this when he says “be perfect.” Rather, he calls us to be complete. The word which is translated here as “perfect” is the Greek word “τέλειοι” (teleioi) which means to be complete, mature, or to have reached the end goal. Asceticism is not a matter of not making mistakes, but of growing into who God made us to be. We are to be full of love, just as God is full of love. Our end goal is to be loved by the God who made us.
The first stage of reaching this goal is to rest in Christ and receive his love. His love makes us complete. More specifically, the moment when his love shines through most clearly and breaks into the world is when he is dying on the cross. We are made complete by his brokenness. He first brings us into this love in baptism, then nourishes us by it through the Mass. At the Mass, we kneel at the foot of his cross, receive his love, and are strengthened by him. It is truly “the source and summit of the Christian life.” However, Christ doesn’t only desire to come to us through the Mass, but through all of our prayer. We most clearly rest in Christ in Eucharistic adoration. It is fitting that the monstrance in Christ the King says, “Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis,” or “Come to me, all of you who labor.” The verse finishes, “And I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). In adoration, we rest with Christ. He is present to us and we rest in his love. It is only by learning how to sit quietly in his love that we can learn how to continue to live in his love, as we go out and serve the world. Asceticism does include service and penance, but it doesn’t start there. We must start with the end, which is to learn how to rest in God’s love. If our Lent is to be fruitful, we must not only give things up but also rest with Jesus. We must run our race by resting.