CHRISTIAN SELF-DENIAL I
by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
No one can deny, I think, that Saint Teresa of Avila lived out the Catholic life in an admirable way. By common consent, both within the Catholic Church and outside of it, she ranks among the truly great women who have adorned this earth of ours. She knew Christ and understood his mind as few have ever done. And her knowledge came through her encounter with Him in the Blessed Eucharist, in the inspired word and in prayer. So well did she translate this knowledge into a living reality that the portrait of her which we find even in her books is in fact the portrait of an ideal Christian. These books describe with unsurpassable charm and lucidity the process of trans-formation into Christ, and they place her among the leading spiritual writers of all time. She was endowed with exceptional gifts: high sanctity, combined with great human charm, solid common sense and literary skill. And like her near-contemporary, Saint Thomas More, she had the capacity of loving everything in creation, but in such a way that it enhanced rather than diminished her supernatural stature. She lived above all else for Jesus Christ, and in that she attained to a degree of spiritual maturity unusual even among the saints.
This brings to the fore many an interesting question, but I intend to concentrate on just one, namely the purpose and significance of self-denial in the Christian way of life. Is it compatible with the mature personality? Or to move the issue on to a wider basis, why does Christianity ask its members to renounce many things that seem reasonable and good, to live frugally and abstemiously,(1) instead of encouraging them to enjoy the good things of the world? Is Christianity right in making such a demand? These are big serious matters, deserving of serious consideration. What I put forward in this conference is a series of reflections on certain passages from our Carmelite writers combined with some insights drawn from modern writers.
II. SAINT TERESA'S TEACHINGS:
Saint Teresa has much to say on the subject of self-denial. In fact, something can be found almost in every chapter. Here are a few of the pertinent points.
When she embarked on the work of reform she had clear ideas on what she wanted to do; namely to establish a solid life of prayer. But she had come to know from experience that if prayer is to be authentic, it had to be backed up by many a renunciation. If her spiritual children were to grow up in Christ, they must follow in His footsteps and give up everything. Prayer and self-indulgence do not go together.(2)
In addition there was an apostolic motive. Those who lived a life of prayer must be concerned with the welfare of the Church and the proficiency of the theologians who defend her. A spirit of apostolic self-denial ensures that these desires are not mere pious sentiments. For that reason, Saint Teresa encouraged an austere manner of life in the monasteries which she founded.(3)
She sometimes speaks out against those who led comfortable self-centered lives, or tried to create for themselves a false security. "How is it that people can spend their days so happily in feasting and sleeping and in pursuit of recreation and of all the ease they can get? The body grows robust, but the spirit becomes so feeble that it seems at the point of death."(4) She could also be indignant with people who excused themselves from acts of penance on the pretext that "public health was more feeble nowadays, and things are not what they were."(5) This, to her mind, was a flimsy excuse.
However, she was far too level-headed to make austerity the ultimate test of holiness, or to imagine that "the more perfect a religious order is, the more does it treat the body with studied severity, and prescribe rules for the flesh, and enforce them with the utmost exactitude." This point of view, though actually formulated by one of the early Carmelite spiritual writers, is quite alien to the mind of Saint Teresa. She laid it down, as the ancient Carmelite Rule had already done, that discretion must always be used. She has many an eloquent digression on the need for moderation.(6) Likewise she has some enlightening remarks about melancholic people - we would call them neurotics - who were so little understood in the 16th century, but could disturb an entire community with their morbid urge to do penance.(7) Saint Teresa regarded unbalanced inclinations of that kind as the work of the devil.(8) "God forbid", she was heard to say, "that I should ever see my sisters substitute novel inventions for the real rules of holiness."
Ordinarily Saint Teresa does not give biblical or theological reasons for her position concerning self-denial. She left that kind of work to theologians. However, she does indicate one broad principle as the foundation of all Christian asceticism, namely that we are called to follow Christ, whose earthly life was one of suffering and privation.
About Saint John of the Cross, it must suffice to point to one chapter in the Ascent of Mount Carmel,(9) which describes "the strait way that leads to eternal life, and how completely detached and disencumbered they must be who walk in it." Towards the end of this chapter, he writes: "I will not pursue this subject further, although I have no desire to finish speaking of it, for I see that Christ is known very little by those who consider themselves his friends. We see them seeking in Him their own pleasures and consolations because of their great love for themselves, but not loving His bitter trials and death, because of their great love for Him."
Now, even when every allowance has been made for the outlook of 16th century spiritual culture, and the good sense of our Carmelite saints, many are liable to take exception to their views of self-denial. It has been asserted that they smack of neo-platonism, that they contradict the optimism of the Bible (e.g. Geneses I and several of the Psalms), that they, implicitly at least, run counter to the doctrine of redemption. And does it not seem that they exclude the possibility of Christian humanism?
A good deal of research has gone in to providing an answer for these questions, which certainly cannot be dismissed lightly. One writer has pointed out that some of the traditional ideas, or rather practices, of asceticism were based on a defective understanding of human psychology and did more harm than good. But, he adds, many sane psychological studies are now tackling "this essential problem, which is of the highest significance for the Christian way of life." (Sacramentum Mundi a. v Asceticism). We may ask, how do the new studies affect the status of our Carmelite guides? But first let us examine the accusations of humanism.
III. THE ACCUSATIONS OF SECULAR HUMANISM
In general, humanism is the effort to enrich man's experience to the fullest capacity of human nature. It aims at producing the ideal human being, cultured, balanced and well disciplined. It tries to remove from human life anything that could inhibit human development. There is more than one kind of humanism, depending on how we answer the question, "What is an ideal human being?" The variety that rules out all consideration of man's supernatural origin and destiny, is called secular humanism. This is the kind that has consistently opposed Christianity. It considers human life from a purely terrestrial(10) angle, making no account of the hereafter. If some secular humanists profess to believe in a supreme being, it is because they interpret his role as exclusively for the benefit of mankind. But all secular humanists repudiate Christianity, and bemoan what they regard as its narrow pessimistic rejection of the world. This has been the refrain of cultured rationalistic men from Celsus, who lived in the third century to Sartre of the twentieth.(11) Again and again, they accuse Christianity of diminishing and debasing human life. This comes, they allege, from pinning all one's hopes on a hereafter. In proof of their assertions, they point to the theme of contemptus mundi, which they say, Christianity has consistently encouraged. They give in evidence several practices which the Church upholds: self-denial, flight from the world, virginity, poverty, and so on. It seems to them that the convinced Christian has to forego all the things that make life worth living. He is said to be an enemy of beauty; he mistrusts art; he cares little for human ease and comfort; he condemns human joy. The further tragic misunderstanding is that many present-day humanists fasten on Christianity the blame for the blight which has befallen humanity. "Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean and the world has grown grey from thy breath." These somber words of Swinburne (from Proserpine) represent the attitude of many today.
The answer to all this must be deferred for now. But here are some points. It cannot be denied that from time to time Manichaeism(12) and Puritanism(13) have raised their ugly heads within the Church, and also in certain groups that call themselves Christians. Indeed, some of the conflict in our times is due to the fact that, all unconsciously perhaps, some Catholics see evil and sin where it does not exist. And other Christian sects persist in identifying the law of Christ with abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, lotteries and other practices which at best are matters of secondary importance. The reaction to this rigorism has produced a generation where greed and licentiousness are the order of the day. If there is one lesson to be learned from a book like Future Shock (by Alvin Toffler), it is the anguish and instability of a society which tries to organize itself around terrestrial goals alone. Advances in technology do not heal the deep-seated wound in man's own soul. But it never seems to have occurred to the learned and self-assured author that a solution might be sought on the lines of inner renewal, "letting our minds be remade and our whole nature transformed" in the power of Christ. "For in this way alone we can discern the will of God, and know what is good and acceptable and perfect."(14) The notion that mankind should moderate its use of certain good things for the sake of what is better does not seem to find much of a place in the thinking reflected in this book. It is also tainted with the common humanistic idea that mankind, if given the right conditions, will spontaneously do what is right; something that the experience of history alone has disproved again and again. Nor is it correct to say that moral standards are determined by public consensus. One of the characteristics of our age is a type of "situation ethics" which says in effect that if a sufficiently large number of people think or act in a certain way, this somehow becomes acceptable and even good, even if it is a variance with the objective standards of moral law. This matter of moral standards is, of course, a very complex one. The point I am concerned about here is that some present-day sociologists and writers seem to give almost no attention to the value of and need for asceticism, even in ordinary day-to-day life. The idea of going against oneself is abhorrent to most of the modern generation and commercials of all kinds exploit this urge to self-indulgence. However an article by Peter Blos (Daedalus: November, 1971) seems to strike a healthier note. The writer says that the human personality can tolerate and even profit from delay, restraint, and sublimation. As you will note, these are simply other ways of expressing the idea of Christian self-denial.
IV. BIBLICAL SELF-DENIAL
Many hundreds of years ago, at a time of spiritual decadence, a forthright humble man began to preach on the banks of the Jordan, and his message was one of renewal through repentance.(15) This was John the Baptizer, and he asked for this repentance, because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Not long after, Jesus Himself began to preach, and He used almost identical words, "Repent and believe, for the Kingdom is at hand."(16) This is what Bible scholars refer to as metanoia, which literally means a change in one's attitude; in other words, renewal. The New Testament expresses this idea in several different ways. Sometimes it is called spiritual rebirth.(17) Sometimes it is said to be a 'new creation."(18) Or again, it is described as a transition from darkness to light, from death to life.(19) It involves the cultivation of new inner attitudes and a reform of external conduct. Towards the end of the letter to the Christians at Rome, we find some specific examples of what it requires. Saint Paul tells them that they must be tolerant with one another, charitable and cooperative. They should obey the civil authorities and keep God's commandments. And then he launches into a passage which is justly famous in that it occasioned the conversion of Saint Augustine. "It is far on in the night; the day is near. Let us therefore throw off the deeds of darkness and put on our armor as soldiers of the light. Let us behave with decency, as befits the day; no reveling, or drunkenness, no debauchery or vice, no quarrels or jealousies. Let Christ Himself be the armor that you wear; give no more thought to satisfying the bodily appetites!"(20) This passage may well be called the Magna Carta of Christian asceticism, or metanoia.
V. WHAT IS ASCETICISM?
In general asceticism means the deliberate and persevering effort to follow Christ and to keep His Law. But in practice, there are many obstacles in the way, stemming from a tendency to evil which is common to all human beings, but which most humanists either ignore or explain away. This is what Catholic theologians call "original sin". Whatever may be the full explanation of its origin and nature, original sin is an undeniable fact. In some way or another, man has become inwardly alienated from his Creator. "I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don't accomplish the good I set out to do; and the evil I don't want to do, I find myself often doing."(21) On account of this, the following of Christ involves a painful effort. Self-love is poisoned, in that it tends to be inordinate and to exalt itself in the place of God. Anything that ministers to this disorderly self-love or self-esteem has to be set aside. Furthermore, the struggle against self-love requires both a determined and free choice on our part and above all the grace of God. For man can never purify himself by his own efforts alone, though he must leave nothing undone to cooperate with God.
We can distinguish, then, two aspects of Christian self-denial. One is negative, consisting in the turning away from whatever is at variance with the law of Christ. This, unfortunately is the side that is brought out by nearly all the English words that are used to designate the process: penance, renunciation, abnegation, mortification. The other positive side consists in turning to God. This is what the word metanoia expresses; a positive constructive movement of the soul. It involves openness to the power of the Spirit, submission to unselfish love, being receptive of God's lights and strength. It likewise calls for the gradual restoration of good order, both in our inner selves and in our outward conduct. The best spiritual guides of today are agreed that authentic Christian asceticism must take into account (1) the goodness of the created order; (2) the psychology that governs the human person; and (3) a correct sense of the relative value of material things. This means in effect that we must reject any philosophy which even implicitly regards created things as evil. We may not ignore the laws of sound psychology. We must recognize the fact that material things have a value, but only a relative one, which means that they have to be put aside for the sake of a greater good. The value of everything comes from God, but it is part of the process of spiritual maturity to learn what that worth is. This is one of the main themes in the third book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Sound spiritual direction ensures that the process of detaching oneself from lesser goods does not result in strain or self-destruction. Furthermore, Christian repentance (or metanoia) can never stop at externals. Essentially, it is our response to God's merciful intervention, calling us to be more worthy of Him. The first and basic change takes place within the heart. That done, man will manifest his new attitude in an appropriate external fashion. The deepest meaning of Christian self-denial, then, is that it is an effort to replace self-love with the love of God, at every level of our lives. When Saint Teresa and Saint John spoke about the need for penitence in those who were cultivating a life of prayer, this is what they had in mind. Prayer is an encounter with God; and we must be in some sense fit to meet Him. He already dwells by grace in the depths of our souls, so there is no question of having to go on a long journey to find Him. But we may well have to search deeply into our own hearts, because too often, self-love has prevented Him from communicating His life to us in a really effective way. We do not let Him rule even in His own house. Self-denial is the removal of the obstacles that hinder this love from flowing into all departments of our lives; it means cleansing the heart from worldly desires, cultivating recollection, withdrawing the senses from what is harmful, patiently awaiting the liberation of God. Hope assures us that none of this is in vain, for though Christian asceticism is in truth a sacrifice, it is one that is linked up with the healing sacrifice of Christ, and with the Mass. It is in fact one way of looking at the mystery of salvation.
Now, it may seem, at first sight, that our Carmelite writers use expressions which imply that they emphasize too strongly the negative side of self-denial. However, the presence of a few scattered words or phrases does not mean that a writer subscribes to an erroneous point of view. We are all the product of our culture and age, and both Saint Teresa and Saint John simply used the current terminology in referring to the spiritual life. To determine more precisely what they had in mind, one has to examine the entire picture. If we do this, we will be left in little doubt, I think, that their attitudes were preeminently positive. To confine our remarks to Saint John of the Cross, he may sometimes convey the impression of being harsh, but he asks no more than the gospel does. The self-denial he advocates is supernatural in its goal and concerned with the best interests of human nature, not of its destruction or mutilation. A superficial perusal of his writings may give the impression that he is excessively concerned with the theme of darkness. But if we check out the number of times he uses words like "light", "joy", "life", and "love", we will see how luminous and many-splendored his writings are. Furthermore, there is no solid reason for saying that in any way he overlooks the essential solidarity of body and soul, in forming one entire person.
But even more fundamentally, one can see that his teaching on faith is hostile to a false understanding of self-denial. Or to put it more accurately, the exercise of faith is the basic kind of Christian asceticism that he calls for.(22) Faith is a gift from God, but it needs our whole-hearted response not just once or twice, but every single day, and every moment of the day. The acceptance of God's light and grace is the road to fulfillment and enlightenment. But before the light of God can fully illumine our minds, we must learn to renounce our own ways of thinking and knowing. What faith requires above all is an acceptance of the mastery of God Himself, something we can never penetrate. It induces us to give ourselves to God in trust and love; to leave our entire life in His hands. God Himself is the only guarantee we have that His promises are true, but there is no greater assurance. Faith means rising above the things that we cling to so doggedly; things which according to our natural judgment seem to provide some measure of fulfillment. This is where Christianity parts company with secular humanism, which encourages human beings to build their lives on their own talents and on the other things that the natural man reaches out for. Faith does not condemn these as evil in themselves. But it tells us that they are inadequate, and have no final meaning except in God. Original sin was the effort of man to become self-sufficient; to be his own standard or criterion: "to be like God, knowing good and evil."(23) To go against this deep-seated urge is extremely hard for human nature, but in doing this consists the first step in metanoia, the movement back to God. While it is true that faith brings to us an authentic sense of values, it must also be the integrating principle of a complete human outlook, not and escape. The frame of mind that withdraws from "the world" because the world is so evil is actually non-Christian. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world, and shows us how to integrate it into the service of God. It also shows us the choices that have to be made, some of them painful ones, when the good things of creation tend to usurp the place of God. That is why the exercise of faith is always the supreme metanoia.
Faith is also a deep personal commitment. It asks us to surrender to God, and accept Him as the supreme reality in our lives. It asks us to accept ourselves too, with our good qualities and our many limitations. It urges us to take them all, and by the grace of God to make something out of them, knowing that for those who love God, everything works unto good. And as Saint Augustine pointed out long ago, even sin can be turned to use, as in the case of the Samaritan woman, and the publican and the prodigal son. Sin itself, of course, can never be directed to the glory of God, but He can make use of it to show His glory and Power. The one category of persons with whom the Lord had no patience were those who were convinced that they had no sin, and who attributed this to their own uprightness.(24) This is spiritual pride, the worst obstacle of all to the grace of renewal. As long as it persists, the sinner sees no need for repentance. The genuine Christian, on the other hand puts his reliance on God's mercy, realizing that from Him alone all goodness comes.
Another important aspect of asceticism is its participation in the cross of Christ, and in the entire paschal mystery. Christ gave the example of self-denial when He renounced the privileges of His divine nature, and took on the form of a slave. He who was supremely free became obedient even to death on a Cross.(25) The self-denial of the Christian can attain to its full measure only when it is a participation in this renouncement of Christ. This is a point very properly stressed by both Saint Teresa and Saint John.
Finally, Christian self-denial looks to the future, when Christ comes again in glory. It is eschatological(26) in outlook and includes all the virtues that are appropriate to those who wait for the fulfillment: patience, preparedness, and constant vigilance.(27) To put those virtues into effect is itself one of the finest manifestations of asceticism. Who does not experience periods of dryness, weariness and even defeatism while awaiting the full salvation of Christ? "How long, O Lord, will you delay? How long will you hide your face and forget me?" "Out of the depths I have cried to you Lord; Lord hear my voice." "Are you the one we were told to expect or must we look for another?" These sentiments were uttered by saintly men who really knew God, but had experienced His absence. How much more do not we need to pray for the gift of final perseverance? We will find this attitude admirably expressed in Saint Teresa's writings. She knew, as few have done, that it was by God's grace alone we become Christians the first day, and only in the same grace can we hope to remain Christians. True, we must cooperate and work hard to make grace effective, but growth in holiness shows itself to the extent that we allow our loving God to guide us, in all the happenings of daily life.(28)
VI. SELF-DENIAL AND HUMANISM
If we see self-denial in its biblical and theological dimensions, and in the light of sound psychology, no one can ever accuse it of being hostile to human nature. Rather the contrary. Its purpose is to bring man back, insofar as this is possible, to something of the freedom and joy that God intended him to have before he gave his will to evil. Natural culture alone can never achieve this. Perhaps no race ever enjoyed such a high degree of human refinement as the Greeks of antiquity. Edith Hamilton, who understood them so well has this to say: "To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and good to live in was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. The joy of life is written in everything they have left behind." In other words, they seem to be almost ideal humanists, and have never been surpassed. But wait! "Much of their literature is marked also by sorrow. They knew to the full how bitter life can be... They were terribly aware of life's uncertainty and the inevitability of death. Over and over again, they emphasize the brevity of life, the ultimate failure of all human endeavor, and the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyful."(29) This, of course, is an admission of a woeful want in their civilization, admirable though it was in so many respects. One may well ask if it can be really called humanism at all, seeing as it made no attempt to provide an answer to the riddle of existence. The lacuna(30) in their knowledge was filled in, towards the middle of the first century A.D., when a non-Greek, Paul of Tarsus by name, journeyed through their cities with a message of good news. He told them of a man called Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be more than a man; who established that claim by rising from the dead, and who came to communicate to all men the power to live forever, in a kingdom of bliss. "He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and those who follow Him will never walk in darkness, but will live in the Light."(31) The news of salvation opened up a horizon such as not even the greatest of the Greeks had explored or even known about. It denies nothing of the Greek idea of wholeness, but adds on a new dimension that only God could supply.
But the attainment of this wholeness is not without cost. Some of the ancient philosophers had indeed noted that if the maximum development of the entire man is to be achieved, each constituent of his nature must be prepared to be subordinated to this end, and be content with an optimum development which may however be less than the maximum. In other words, to achieve a greater good, lesser goods will sometimes have to be sacrificed. This is an everyday experience. A successful student, for instance will have to forego many interests that are incompatible with studies; a good administrator has to restrict his own freedom, so as to be of service to others, etc., etc. So too, from the Christian point of view, one has to be ready to give up everything for the one thing necessary. And the first law of Christian asceticism is a readiness to surrender anything which may be incompatible with the following of Christ. "If anyone comes to Me without hating his own life, he cannot be My disciple. The man who will not take up his cross and follow Me is no disciple of Mine. Only the man who says good-bye to all his possessions can be My disciple."(32) The words sound uncompromising, but when viewed in the light of the cross and resurrection, they are eminently reasonable. The fact is that Christ has given a solution and an answer beyond the range of human reason. Its roots are in an experience that comes from the spirit of God; an experience however, that fulfills all the noblest and deepest aspirations of the human heart. "For our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they can know no rest until they rest in You."(33)
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Article 6.
2. The Holy Bible.
3. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vols. I, II and III. ICS Publications.
4. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
5. John of the Cross - Carmelite Studies VI. ICS Publications.
1. adj. 1. Eating and drinking in moderation. 2. Restricted to bare
necessities; sparing. [Lat. abstemius : ab-, away + temetum, liquor.] ab-ste'-mi-ous-ly
adv. ab-ste'-mi-ous-ness n.
2. Peers II, p.248; p.16.
3. Peers II, p. 3.
4. Peers II, p.370.
5. Peers I, p. 176 and p. 261.
6. e.g. Peers III, p. 89.
7. Peers III, p. 40.
8. Peers II, p. 211 and several of her letters.
9. Book II, chapt. 7.
10. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to the earth or its inhabitants. 2. Having a worldly, mundane character or quality. 3. Of, pertaining to, or composed of land as distinct from water or air. 4. BIOLOGY Living or growing on land; not aquatic. n. An inhabitant of the earth. [ME < Lat. terrestris < terra, earth.] ter-res'-tri-al-ly adv. ter-res'-tri-al-ness
11. Noted philosophers of their time.
12. n. 1. The syncretic dualistic religious philosophy taught by the Persian prophet Manes about the third century AD, combining elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic thought. 2. A dualistic philosophy similar to Manichaeism, esp. one considered a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church.
13. n. 1. The practices and doctrines of the Puritans. 2. puritanism. Scrupulous moral rigor, esp. hostility to social pleasures and indulgences.
14. Romans 12:2.
15. Matt. 3:2-11; Luke 3:1-14.
16. Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15
17. e.g. John 3:3-8.
18. II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:15-16
19. John 3:17-21; John 9:19-20
20. Romans 13:12-14.
21. Romans 7:19-20.
22. N.B. the word asceticism, derived from the Greek askesis, actually means exercise.
23. Gen. 3:1-7
24. Luke 18:11.
25. Phil. 2:7.
26. n. The branch of theology that is concerned with the ultimate or last things, such as death. [Gk. eskhatos, last +-logy .] es-chat'-o-log'-i-cal
27. cf. Luke 21:34
28. cf. Sacramentum Mundi I, p. ll6.
29. The Greek Way: pp. 19-20.
30. n. pl.-nae (-n_) or -nas 1. An empty space or missing part; gap. 2. ANATOMY A cavity or depression. [Lat. ùsee lagoon .] la-cu'-nal la-cu'-nar la-cu'-na-ry adj.
31. John 8:12
32. Luke 14:26-33.
33. Confessions of Saint Augustine 1:3.
BACK TO TOPICS