Ash Wednesday is sometimes called “Catholic New Year’s,” partially because the festivities of Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday resemble a New Year’s Eve party, and partially because our Lenten penance observances often resemble New Year’s resolutions. The comparisons are sometimes apt, and often regrettably so. A fabulous feast before a fast is one thing; but engaging in an allegedly-baptized Bacchanalia to get all our sinnin’ in before Lent makes as much sense as eating a box of Jujy Fruits before going to the dentist to get our money’s worth on that cleaning. Likewise, while resolving to take up some positive practice can be beneficial to us, too often our observances miss the point. While it might improve your health to give up sweets or soda or cheeseburgers with donuts for buns for a time, Lenten observances are not meant to be 40-day diet plans; they are training regimens for the spiritual life. Lenten observances are practices in asceticism. What does this word mean?
When we hear the word “asceticism” (if we haven’t forgotten it altogether), we tend to think of harsh disciplines and extreme practices, like self-scourging and vows of silence. However, the Greek word askesis referred to the training that athletes undertook to compete in the games. Askesis is not mere self-punishment; it is exercise, training toward a goal. It’s a workout intended to improve your spiritual health. Such a metaphor should not surprise us. St. Paul speaks of the spiritual life in athletic terms when he tells us in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” There is a natural analogy between the effort required in physical pursuits and the effort required to live the spiritual life: both are askesis. Thinking of asceticism this way allows us to make another illuminating distinction.
There are two ways we can train toward a goal: repetition and preparation. In the way of repetition, we get better at a task or a practice by doing it. This is the “practice makes perfect” method: we get better at shooting jumpers or throwing spirals or hurdling hurdles by shooting and throwing and hurdling. This is also the method by which people get to be “country strong”: when you buck hay or pull tobacco all day, such repeated arduous work will naturally result in stronger muscles.
The preparation method of training does not actually participate in the tasks one is aiming toward; rather, it focuses on the skills or strengths needed to perform those tasks. Things that we normally think of as “exercise”—weight training, cardio work, yoga, and calisthenics— fall under this category. These activities are utilized by athletes to train their bodies to perform the motions needed for their contests with speed, strength, and endurance. A pitcher might use grips to strengthen his hands to get a little extra cut on his fastball, or a small forward might use a plyometric box to improve his vertical leap to grab the long rebound. Rather than simply throwing more cut fastballs or jumping after more long rebounds, the athletes in these cases will use targeted exercises to build muscle and muscle memory. It’s simply a more focused, intensive method of training.
Now, just as there are these different methods of athletic askesis, so there are analogous methods of spiritual askesis. The purpose of the Christian life is to grow in friendship with God, and integral to this is forming ourselves so that we might be, like King David, people after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). To do this, we form our intellects to know as God knows (that is, to know the truth); we form our passions to desire what God desires (that is, the good); and we form our wills to choose what God chooses (that is, to love as God loves)—never on our own, always moved by the grace of the Spirit. And there are two ways to do this. One way, the way of repetition, is to develop these virtues in the choices we make in our everyday lives: holding our tongues here, helping our neighbor there; and the more times we make these choices, the more readily they become our default reactions. This is why virtues are called “habits,” and why we say something has become “second nature” to us. Just as we can learn to make lay-ups consistently by shooting layups repeatedly, so we can learn to be charitable consistently by being charitable repeatedly.
The other way, the way of preparation, is to exercise our wills intentionally in making good decisions, apart from the situations that arise every day. We avoid certain licit pleasures or take on certain spiritual activities to aid in the transformation of our habits. I might make a conscious decision to read a chapter of Scripture every day during Lent, so that at the end of Lent, reading Scripture becomes as much a natural part of my day as eating breakfast or checking my email. Or, I might deliberately choose to avoid a licit pleasure, like candy, popcorn, or coffee, not so that I might slim down, tone up, or brighten my teeth, but so that when the time comes to avoid an illicit pleasure, my will might be all the stronger to put up resistance.
We human beings are fraught and frail and subject to fall to the promptings of our passions as they attract us to all the shiny things that cross our paths. We need to train ourselves to resist the pull toward the things and situations that are not in accord with our God-given nature and its beatitude, and instead to follow our heart’s deepest longing: God. To train our hearts to love the things of God is in a sense to do “spiritual cardio.” This is askesis. May God fill our hearts with His grace, that we too may finish the race and keep the faith.