Spirituality, at its most basic level, is engagement and participation with God. Another helpful and compelling idea is thinking about spirituality as union with God, the goal of the soul’s “way of ascent” as provided by the 5th century writer Dionysius and the medieval Catholic mystics. This language of engagement, participation, and union is very positive vernacular in congruence with the culture of our time, a culture that has re-mystified the world beyond sensory observation and invested in a new pop-blend of spirituality evidenced by Yoga, Buddhist classes in coffee shops, uplifting Christian radio, and TV shows whose heroes have what appear to be spiritual gifts. What is not popular, as it seems to me, is a spirituality that labors; that seeks “temporal mortifications” as St. Augustine names them; that refrains, denies, and even punishes oneself in order to purge evil and draw near to God. This is not contemporary pop-spirituality. Yet it is a driving force, a key motif, of Roman Catholic spirituality prior to the Reformation.
As a Protestant and a 21st century American, I recognize the potential abuses of such a spirituality. I recognize that chaste marriages, fasting desert-dwellers, and self-flagellating saints shock both our non-legalistic bias and our contemporary sensibilities. The legacy of the Reformation, in the name of grace, deconstructed the legal religious framework that involved merit; that is, favor from God through good works, and in its place opted for a more organic biblical metaphor, one of fruit. I myself resonate with this and appreciate the Christian spirituality that I now practice: one of freedom from law, acceptance by grace, and holiness through the shed blood of Christ. However, did Pre-Reformation spirituality offer a way of being “in Christ” that was far more zealous, far more dedicated, and far more compelling than the often consumer-oriented, privatized, and dull expressions of Protestant spirituality in the West today?
This is not to deny the zeal of saints like John Calvin and Martin Luther, but it is to say that an anti-Catholic bias in Protestant circles, one that assumes that the time between the 3rd and 16th centuries was somehow corrupted beyond appreciation, is unacceptable. Further, it seems that Protestantism has yet to develop a theologically compelling framework for a spirituality that unites spirit and body in such a way that activity in one directly effects the vitality of the other. It seems that something has been lost in the Apostle Paul’s admonishment in Romans 12:1, where offering our bodies as living sacrifices is our spiritual act of worship. It seems that that the current generation of Christians, who are open to the resources of our past and saturated in a greedy, sex-crazed culture would find the asceticism of Roman Catholic spirituality compelling and a powerful remedy to an otherwise tortured spirit-body duplicity.
This essay is not an attempt to do the above. It is however, an attempt to start a conversation on the possibility of rekindling a zeal for asceticism, and to so with an appreciation for our ancient Catholic sisters and brothers who loved Jesus with all their hearts and all their strength. The attempt also requires a necessary Protestant spin, because there is no denying that this movement is one I align myself with, and therefore the tension between merit and grace must be addressed.
Ascetic practices, as I understand them, are purposeful, self-applied, bodily discomforts that physically convey an interior, God-focused desire. Unlike behaviors such as cutting; that is, self-injury as an expression of interior pain or the soothing thereof, ascetic practices create discomfort as an expression of an interior disposition toward authentic Christian spirituality, the disposition discussed here being purity. The differences between self-injurious behavior and asceticism are worth investigation but go well beyond the scope of this reflection. I only mention the difference to contrast what may be a dilemma for some who approach ascetic practices from a psychological suspicion.
That aside, purification or purgation is rooted in the concept of meritorious work that a Christian does in order to purge away post-baptismal sin. In church fathers such as Tertullian, St. Augustine, and Gregory the Great; who laid the foundation for Catholic spirituality from the 3rd to the 7th century, the context of purification from such sins was the church. There was, in these early thinkers, a profound connection between the practices of the church and the purification of the sinner. For Tertullian, the practices included casting oneself in sackcloth and ashes at a fellow Christian’s feet or anguishing with tears on behalf of another’s suffering or sin. For St. Augustine, they were conceived more generally as “good works” but with an intent focus on almsgiving which included all “acts of mercy”. In Gregory the Great, the celebration of the Mass whose central aspect was the Eucharist became the church’s most poignant, purifying practice. Although the spiritual practices that each of these saints emphasized differed, the superstructure of meritorious, purifying works in the context of the church remained the same.
The Reformers rejected this superstructure completely, and in doing so removed the church from a mediatory role between the individual and God. Biblically, this has strong precedent, for there is one mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ. No institution or hierarchy stands in the way of union with God. Further, the work of Christ on the cross is not only a removal of guilt, as the early Fathers maintained, but a sufficient purging of all sin including post-baptismal sin (a poena et culpa). There is no need for further purgation, for in Christ, the penalty for all such sins have been nailed to the cross.
However, biblically speaking there remains a tension with what Christ has accomplished for us and what the human condition necessitates. A good Protestant might say that the only response that actualizes Christ’s work on the cross is faith, faith itself being a gift from God, “so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). However, we see that faith works itself out in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13). We see that faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17). We see that the free gift of faith creates another gift, that is “good works” (Eph 2:10). We see that good trees bear good fruit (Mt 7:17), good servants behave wisely (Mt 24:45-46), and wise virgins remember oil (Mt 25:1-13). We see that there is an economy in the kingdom where God’s servants put resources to work (Lk 19:11-26) and a kind of worthiness in the age to come (Lk 20:35) This tension is one that the Reformers have surely addressed, but it would do us good to remember that in reacting to the abuses and corruption of the institutional Roman Catholic church, the Reformation threw out a very sophisticated piety that linked purification with spiritual practices. While the Reformers maximized the length and breadth of Christ’s labor of love on the cross, they unwittingly minimized the height and depth of the believer’s labor of love in the body.
There is a need to recognize the theological resources of the Pre-Reformation tradition with regard to ascetic practices and purity while maintaining an appreciation for a Post-Reformation theology of atonement. Ancient Roman Catholic spirituality linked the denial of the body with the progress of the soul and balanced the above biblical tension with a system of outward works that demonstrated an inward reality (penance). From a Reformer’s point of few, all “fruit” is produced by faith, but it would be inadequate to say that Pre-Reformation spirituality denied this. The latter merely concretized fruit. As such, Pre-Reformation spirituality seemed to have a better grasp on the reality that the progress of a Christian pilgrim should be marked by a certain striving. “Be perfect, then, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Further, we may recognize that this striving is strengthened by practices that embody a zeal for purity or “holiness”. In good Protestant fashion, holiness is a positional status. Having been delivered from one kingdom, we have been brought to another (Col 1:13). However, there is something to be said for a being that matches our position. There needs to be an expansion of thought related to the reality that we are becoming what God has already made us. The operative word here is “sanctification” and something tells me that a more refined Protestant eschatology, perhaps among other things, is needed to refine our understanding of that concept.
St. Augustine is perhaps the easiest resource to draw from, since his title as “Doctor of Grace” fits so well into the spiritual categories of contemporary Protestants. Further, it was Augustine who linked grace to merit in such a way that it does well to relieve the biblical tension of “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil 2:12b-13a) as well as the faith-given fruit of Reformed theology. It was Augustine who said, “Even eternal life itself, which is surely the reward of good works, the apostle calls the gift of God.” And further delineates this by saying, “But a gift, unless it is wholly unearned, is not a gift at all (Rom 11:6). We are to understand, then, that man’s good deserts are themselves the gift of God, so that when these obtain the recompense of eternal life, it is simply grace given for grace.” (Enchiridion CVII). Augustine, although still entrenched in a spirituality that separated guilt and punishment; Christ’s atoning work being for the one but not the other, nevertheless linked grace with sanctification in such a way that merit was conceived of as God crowning grace for grace.
My hope is that this reflection will generate more thought around this subject. Ascetic practices such as fasting, vigils, tears for the lost, and Augustinian almsgiving do not have a strong theological foundation in the Protestant church. My hunch is that they need not be lost to a Roman Catholic dualism of guilt and punishment but recovered for the sake of our Protestant body-soul dualism. Further, non-mediatory, Protestant individualism betrays more communally-centered practices of spirituality, an aspect so deeply connected to the asceticism of the church fathers and mothers.
The spiritual current of our culture is more receptive to and more zealous for a spirituality that involves the body and community, but lacks any integration of the key concept of purity. Purity is conceived of as prude, self-righteous, anti-social behavior rather than a tireless labor of love for God and neighbor. We have much to learn from the ardor and devotion of the fathers and mothers of our faith in the Roman Catholic tradition who made union with God a goal that demanded the vitality of a living sacrifice.