In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism.
“Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.”
The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.
Caught up in a raging battle between his desire for God and the “law of sin” that holds him captive, the apostle Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24) He answers the question with a doxology: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
God has prepared us, created and blessed us, “for glory” (Rom 9:23). “You have died,” Paul tells the Colossians, “and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ appears—He who is your life—then you also will appear with Him in glory!” (Col 3:3-4). Caught up in a world of sin, dwelling in a “body of sin” subject to death and corruption, we are nevertheless called, “destined,” to participate fully in the glory of the Risen Christ. Through ascetic practice, as through eucharistic communion, that participation becomes a present reality, one that little by little transforms our body of death into a true body of celebration.
This is the perspective that makes sense out of our lenten asceticism. Against this perspective there is the subtle and powerful temptation to turn the “great fast” into an end in itself. We adopt lenten practices of bodily prostrations because of their physical benefit; we abstain from meat and maybe dairy products in order to purge the body of toxins, or to lose weight, or to be able to say “we did it.”
This popular distortion of the reason for lenten discipline goes hand in hand with an obsessive need to “do it right,” exemplified by a close examination of every carton we purchase in the grocery store, to be sure it contains not a trace of meat or dairy. We pride ourselves on our ability to sacrifice some pleasure (movies, alcohol, sex, ice cream), at least during the first and fifth weeks of Great Lent. Yet the Old Adam remains very much alive. Our sacrifice all too seldom translates into self-giving love. We still harbor the same old grudges, still neglect the anonymous undesirables in our neighborhoods, and still take vengeance when the opportunity arises. In St. Basil’s words, we abstain from meat yet devour our brother!
The true aim of all ascetic practice is to allow grace to work within us. It is to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our acquisitive self, our “body of death,” into a “body of celebration.” As Clément points out, that transformation requires that we unite ourselves to the “ecclesial liturgy,” the ongoing worship of the Church. And this in turn unites us with the “cosmic liturgy,” the eternal worship of all those who have passed into the Communion of Saints.
If we abstain from certain foods, increase and deepen our personal and corporate prayer, devote more time and attention to Scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers, and intentionally share with others the riches with which God has blessed us, it is for only one purpose: to allow the Holy Spirit to work this transformation within us, from a body of death to a body of glory.
Furthermore, and most importantly, these lenten practices, that we glibly and pridefully refer to as “sacrifices,” can gradually become every day actions that mark our entire life.
Lenten asceticism, in other words, is not something exceptional we assume because of tradition (“we always did it that way”) or because of obligation (we feel guilty if we don’t). Lenten asceticism is an invitation, a call to something greater, more beautiful and more fulfilling than anything our ordinary experience can offer. It is an appeal, made by God Himself, to recognize that He alone is the object of every true desire, every authentic longing we can know.
Insofar as we heed this appeal, we discover that each day of our life can truly be viewed and lived in the “joyful sorrow” of the Lenten spring. We find, to our astonishment and our delight, that every gesture and every attitude can be shaped by a profound anticipation, a profound longing, for the transformation of our lowly body into the glorious Body of Jesus Christ (Phil 3:21).