In reading the ascetical literature of spiritual writers (especially monastic ones) of past ages, one will find much emphasis on corporeal penances and acts of self-denial. Fasting, vigils, and other bodily austerities were understood to be the path to the weakening or taming of the body and hence of the liberation of the spirit. This is true, to a certain extent, despite their platonic misunderstanding of the nature of body and soul and of their relationship. The emaciated, unwashed saint was often held up as the ideal. But something important is missing when the focus of the spiritual life is on bodily renunciations.
“Asceticism” simply means training, such as an athlete would engage in when preparing for some important contest. So it has been understood that severity to the body constitutes a kind of training for the life of the spirit. Again, there is some truth in this, for self-discipline undertaken for Christ’s sake will always have some benefit. But there is much more. The Pharisees also fasted and prayed, but they lacked charity and wisdom, so they received only reproach from the Lord.
It is usually easier to fast or pray than to love one’s neighbor in practical ways. It is easier to accept some sort of bodily discipline than to, say, forgive or be kind to an arrogant or obnoxious person. So it is not always a great feat of holiness to practice corporal penances. It is often a much greater feat to practice the asceticism of charity.
Not eating does not necessarily make us holy. The demons don’t eat, and look what they are. Depriving oneself of sleep is not necessarily sanctifying, either. The demons don’t sleep, and that doesn’t make them holy. But the demons do not love, and here is where we can enter upon the road to holiness. Neither are they humble, and here again we have an asceticism that can bear much fruit.
The asceticism of charity (and humility) is a deeper kind than that of bodily penance. We ordinarily get enough bodily penance through the illnesses and injuries that we all sustain more or less regularly. Offering these to God without complaint, while making an effort strictly to follow (at least) the fasting prescribed by the Church, is for the average person sufficient bodily penance. The greater work of Christian asceticism is learning to live with others in peace and mutual charity and forgiveness, refusing to judge or condemn, to gossip or hold others in contempt, and being willing to set aside one’s own interests or activities for the sake of helping or comforting another in need. Jesus also said that our reward would be great in Heaven if we accepted misunderstanding, revilement and persecution for his sake. How much harder it is to swallow our pride than to refuse to swallow some extra food!
So if you say you cannot be a holy ascetic because you can’t fast or do vigils or afflict your body in other ways, take courage, for there is a whole range of ascetical practices within your reach (with the help of God’s grace). But if you think you are a holy ascetic because of your fasting and vigils, etc, then be aware that you are far from it if you are not actively loving, forgiving, and serving your brothers and sisters. All forms of asceticism are difficult and demanding (and important) in their own way; some bear more fruit than others. Choose the better part, along with