Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ascesis: the True Sign of Jonas

Ascesis.... an unusual word, perhaps only a little more recognizable to us Westerners in its "-ism" form, asceticism. Ascesis can be defined as "rigorous self-denial and active self-restraint."

Lent is all about ascesis.... it's about realizing who we are and where we've come from and starting off to be new creatures journeying to a new place. We give up things for Lent and make changes, but its not just another New Year's resolution or an attempt at self reformation. It's about something much bigger.

In today's Mass readings we hear about the Ninevites who repent at Jonah's preaching.... and the followers of Jesus are summoned to deal with something "much greater," the living incarnation of God in the sign of Jonas, the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.

The forces which shape our lives are our mind, will and emotions. The way we use these tools to live our lives stamps us indelibly with a sign, the sign of Jonas, as we turn away from ourselves, die to self and rise to journey toward the God who created us.

Permit me one final quote (I'm moving on to some other texts for the remainder of Lent) from Michael Casey's Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (p. 123). No, I do not get a commission from promoting his books.

"Thus, there is a role for negative elements of discipleship: abstinence and asceticism. This means subjecting our emotions or passions to discernment and compelling those that are unruly (the vices) to accept the governance of the will under grace.

Consistent practice gradually cleanses our system of its poisons and leads to that purity of heart which, according to the beatitudes, sees God. When the Fathers spoke about apatheia (or victory over the passions) they were more interested in the single-heartedness that was its effect than in mere denial or suppression of instinctual impulses.

As Peter Brown has noted, the ascetical movement was not a denial of the body but an affirmation of its importance; instead of dismissing bodily impulses as insignificant to the state of the soul, it affirmed the interdependence of the state of the passions and the operation of the spirit. Katharsis or purification was a necessary process in realizing the potential inherent in the spiritual nature of human beings."

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