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The new asceticism

Ancient ascetic ideas seem to be making a resurgence but, as Chris Chatteris SJ reflects on an article recently published by a French sociologist of religion, it seems that it now has more secular than religious appeal.

A recent article in the French Catholic revue Études caught my eye and encouraged me to dust off my dusty, rusty French. It is entitled La Récouverte de l’Ascèse, written by Isabelle Jonveaux. Her thesis is summed up in her quotation of an Austrian monk who quipped that today there is more asceticism in society than in the Church. 

Whereas monks and nuns in the West fast less and less, people in European society now fast like they have never fasted before. What she is noticing, and she has done some academic fieldwork on this, is that there is a new secular asceticism in European society, detached from institutional religion, but in a way harking back to religious roots and tapping into perennial human needs, some of which are made more urgent by the vicissitudes of modern life.

Fasting is a catch-all metaphor for this. The new, secular asceticism, can take many forms, from vegetarianism to reducing fossil-fuel usage. It has a number of obvious motivations, the predominant one being personal health care. However, it can also be a protest against the consumer society or the trashing of the planet. Whether the motives are personal or communitarian, or both, the writer implies that this phenomenon should be of interest to religious believers, including Christians.

She is quite incisive if not cutting, in her analysis of the disappearance of obvious asceticism in monastic religious life and, by implication, in religious life generally. She notes that in her interviews with monastic religious in France and Austria, none of them referred to themselves as ‘ascetics’ or even used the word. 

Her research showed that fasting by rule has pretty well disappeared in these communities and few monastics are vegetarian. The practice of breaking one’s sleep to pray and meditate has also gone by the board. As for chastity, the practice would seem to be unchanged, except for a shift in the understanding of the body and emotions, which are today seen in a more positive light. 

Jonveaux notes that the general level of comfort and convenience and contact with the world outside the community have increased for members of monastic communities thanks to en suite bathrooms, access to the internet and mobile phones. Few religious would be able to gainsay such observations which probably also describe communities outside Europe, even in the developing world. 

In a wryly amusing passage, she suggests that visitors to monastic communities in Europe are quite likely to be offered rather recherché experiences more akin to wellness centres. Even bubble baths are on offer in the quest for wellness! 

However, at least one community is aware of the problems of this “commercialisation of well-being” as she calls it, by advertising their community as an “oasis of relaxation and well-being” but one which goes “beyond well-being”, i.e. caters to spiritual wellbeing as well as physical. 

As for fasting in religious communities she notes that some are more likely to undertake fasts which have secular rather than religious associations.

What is behind this secular asceticism movement? Jonveaux hypothesises that an answer can be found in the way in which those undertaking the practices aspire to re-balance and re-integrate body, mind and spirit in a world where we can experience a great deal of imbalance and disintegration. She reports that some who go on secular regimes of fasting or silence or hiking into the natural world are getting away to seek a new harmony in their lives, some after traumatic events such as bereavement or divorce. By undertaking a fast people can make an immediate reconnection with their embodied self which can lead to a more holistic sense of themselves.

There is, apparently, also a return to rites of purification in so-called ‘detox’ diets. I once went to a health hydro for a week, recommended by my secretary who felt I wasn’t coping too well. For the first twenty-four hours one ‘detoxed’ by drinking only pure spring water (pumped up from the hydro’s property). The next two days one feasted on pawpaw and nothing else. For the rest of the week one ate a vegetarian diet. I certainly felt in touch with my body as the hunger kicked in but, as with all fasting, after a while there is a reconnection with the spiritual dimension for those who are open to it. And of course, in a quiet and comfortable place, where you avoid stimulants and heavy meals, there is a lightness and calm that come down delightfully on one’s spirit, whether you believe in God or not. I have to add a financial reflection, which was that although this was a ‘winter special’ it was not that cheap to live on spring water, pawpaw and vegetables!

Is there a religious dimension to this secular asceticism? 

Ms Jonveaux thinks so. She believes that the search for wellness and salvation are linked. After all, she says, the German verb Heilfasten, to fast for health, is suggestive because the word Heil can signify both health and salvation. However, she doesn’t think that “eschatological salvation” is uppermost in the mind of the secular devotees of the new asceticism. What exercises them is much more ‘the here and now’ and the context is the natural world. The transcendence involved in these practices has very down to earth goals. The French sounds better: “des buts intramondaines”, this-worldly goals. On the other hand, she points out that the fashionable Buschinger-Lützner fast, which was invented in 1919 by a certain Dr Otto Buschinger, recommended that the person undertaking the fast should have the ministrations of both a priest and a doctor. The religious roots and motivations of fasting cannot, it seems, easily be escaped.

Her conclusion is sobering. She feels that the return to these quite severe practices, now practically abandoned by the Church, correspond to needs in contemporary society which neither the consumer society nor the institutional Church seem to be able to fulfil. In other words she is putting out to Christians and especially religious, what the French call un défi, a challenge.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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