Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”
It is in the practice of virtue, and especially in the desert spirituality of asceticism, that the narrow gate widens into the portal of heaven.
In the midst of Trumpmania and the swooning over Bernie Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Socialism, we see, if not blatant calls for political salvation, at least the expectation of it. This is nothing new nor is it peculiar to the United States. But the advanced case of Carteresque malaise from which the country now seems to be suffering is due, in part, to a failure of salvific expectations. The millions that gathered in Hyde Park following President Obama’s election in 2008 had as many reasons to celebrate. His election did not merely represent the triumph of a person, a party, or a political ideology. It represented the triumph of the personal expectations of the many who desperately desired hope and change, the recession of the waters, and the arrival of the one for whom we had been waiting. Many had projected their hopes and dreams for a different country and a different world onto the person of Barack Obama. And not just the masses either. We all recall the Nobel committee’s coronation of Obama as the postmodern prince of peace.
As far as I know, no one ever claimed Obama was the messiah. There were many though who acted as if he was. I remember being present in a courtroom shortly after Obama took office and a man appeared before a judge for an arraignment. Bond was set and the court asked the man if he would be able to post it. The man replied in all seriousness and sanity, “No, your Honor, but Obama will.” Unreasonable but not unreal. The feeling of anticipation for great things to come was palpable.
We find ourselves again seeking salvation in presidential politics. Not only is this misguided it will always, regardless of person or party, lead to disappointment at best and ruin at worst. Such is the corruption of our character, and the character of our corruption, that we do not seek to do the hard work of renewal. Instead, we look to the easy path of politics for someone to save us from ourselves. Our lack of collective will and individual fortitude echoes Livy’s oft quoted diagnosis of decline that “we cannot bear our diseases or their remedies.” But the real trouble these days is that we reject the remedy because we deny the disease. We are not a healthy lot.
What to do?
If we read Romano Guardini, the choice is clear. In The End of the Modern World, the Italian-German philosopher and theologian warns, “Contemporary man can bring himself to destruction of both the interior and exterior orders or he can fashion a new universal order, a space where he could fit himself and, conscious of human dignity, lay the roadway of the future.” Such an order, he says, would require support from a triumvirate of virtues grounded in the truth: earnestness, gravity, and asceticism.
Earnestness “must will to know what is really at stake; it must brush aside empty rhetoric extolling progress or the conquest of nature.” A person needn’t be very observant to notice that all the histrionic babble about progressive change and climate catastrophe somehow misses the mark as to what truly ails us. The virtue of gravity or courage, Guardini argues, “will be spiritual” and must be purer and stronger than the courage to confront bombs or biological warfare “because it must restrain the chaos rising out of the very works of man.” This virtue will be opposed “by an enemy … ranged against it in public organizations clotted with catchwords.” Those who defend the dignity of the unborn, or sacramental marriage, or the right of Catholic institutions to follow the mandate of heaven and not that of a government obsessed with the ubiquity of contraception, know well the range of organizational enemies arrayed against us. Denunciation replaces debate. And euphemistic catchwords like choice, reproductive rights, contraceptive access clot the lifeblood of a society that degrades and denies human dignity.
If earnestness and gravity are how we must carry ourselves into battle, then the virtue of asceticism describes the ground on which we fight. It is here that Guardini’s prescriptive prophecy reaches greatest import. “Man must learn again to become a true master by conquering and by humbling himself.” It seems to me that he clearly understood that we shall master ourselves or be mastered by the demonic force of power in a world that does not submit to the natural authority of God. The consequences are graver than any time in history because the crises we face have their root in a human heart that denies its Creator. Existential crises may be assessed generationally but Guardini rightly draws our attention to the underlying spiritual crisis for which existential assessments and political policies offer no real remedy.
We must find true freedom in ascetic self-mastery or we will be enslaved to the free exercise of our desires. Great effort is needed because the stakes are so high. All hangs in the balance for as he says, “Only the freedom won through self-mastery can address itself with earnestness and gravity to those decisions which will affect all reality.” But we know this. Or we should. Still listening to the sibilant suggestions of the Serpent, we are deaf to the roar of his power in our hearts and in our world. “Everywhere,” Guardini observes, “man is capitulating to the forces of barbarism. Asceticism is the refusal to capitulate, the determination to fight them, there at the key bastion—namely, in ourselves.” Evil must be resisted, Guardini reminds us, “and this resistance is asceticism.”