Asceticism, a way of liberty
This is a very surprising book, because although the author investigates the ascetic practices and writings of the desert Fathers, what he means by asceticism is very different to what might be expected. In a sense there are two way of looking at the issue.
The first is related to the origins in sports of the word; ascetic practice in its first meaning refers to the training regime of athletes, training the body to perform tasks in a superior way. Paul takes up the image when he says that he treats his body roughly, bringing it into subjection; thus asceticism in this light is a training of the body and the soul to aid the spiritual life. In line with this approach, at some points of the book certain people are referred to as “the ascetics” with reference to the desert Fathers who are perhaps best known for their ascetic practices. The opening chapter is a lengthy look at the discipline of fasting as they practice it and as it occurs through the Bible and it is presumably this that would be expected in a book on asceticism. What is unexpected to a reader who has read the usual books on fasting is that the discussion gets right to the heart of what fasting is about. So many books recommend fasting; “fast” they say. Why? “Because it’s beneficial.” The discussion shows the purpose of fasting; the OT purpose is “to humble the soul”; its only value is before God, to help the soul turn to God. Bourguet’s abiding interest through his books is to bring everything into relationship with God, to see God in everything. Fasting is of absolutely no value outside that. On this basis, he expands on the value of fasting in a way that goes far beyond the common run of thought. Through this discussion of fasting we get at the purpose of all ascetic practice, as conducted by the Fathers; and because their purpose is the same as ours – God! – we increasingly see as we read how it relates to us. Interesting we actually find that the Fathers tended to move away from fasting and more towards temperance.
Secondly, however, is the surprising aspect that any act of obedience to God is seen as an ascetic action. (To be continued . . .)