An Experiment in Asceticism

August 13, 2018 by

A few of us young people from Fox Hill were talking about asceticism and self-discipline, and wondering whether being hard on yourself really does bring you closer to God, as we imagined. We decided to try an experiment: we’d all “fast” from something we enjoy, for one week.

photo of fudgePhoto by jules

The Greek root of the word asceticism originally referred to athletic training and exercise; I began the fast imagining it as a magic cure or ultimate workout routine that would automatically turn my thoughts to God. No such luck. But I’ll admit – the fasts we took on were pretty superficial: from un-following professional sports to avoiding candy and not adding sugar to coffee. Yes, I think almost everyone held to their fasts, but I don’t think any of us reached any higher plateaus of spirituality either.

Talking about our experiment after the fact, we realized that in anything we do, we must be mindful of God and we must be genuine. Our experiment was fated to fail because it was an experiment. Instead of turning me more to God, it made me examine myself (never a good thing), constantly checking my suffering sweet tooth and worse, my “temperature” as a Christian. I realized the futility of trying fasting for its own sake, and I think my friends shared that experience.

In its true biblical sense, fasting is a joyful, quiet, and powerful means of prayer. Jesus, and the early church, used it and encouraged us to do the same. All major world religions prescribe times of fasting and various forms of asceticism. Clearly, it has value. But don’t try to force it. In our conversation, someone asked, “Once you start practicing asceticism, do you have to keep submitting to more and more challenging forms so as to constantly move out of your comfort zone?” No, because then you become stuck in a cycle of doing something for its own sake, built solely on human effort.

The difference between biblical fasting and our experimental fast was highlighted for me by a mother hesitantly sharing her story of long-term, weekly, quiet fasting and prayer for a wayward daughter. In tears, she attested to the peace she found through turning to God in this manner. Hearing her story, I felt ashamed of the shallow approach I’d taken with our fast.

So how should we practice asceticism? I learned two valuable points from our experiment.

One: Be genuine – it’s a waste of time to take on a fast for its own sake rather than with the simple sincerity outlined in Matthew 6: 16–18: “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Two: Be mindful of God in whatever you do. While we were talking about asceticism, someone pointed out that as members of the Bruderhof, we already practice asceticism, in denying ourselves a number of conveniences. I don’t own a car, a smartphone, or a private home, for instance, and doubt I’ll ever get to Aruba on vacation. While I don’t usually register these “sacrifices” on a daily basis, having grown up at the Bruderhof, it’s crucial that when they do pinch (think irksome neighbors), I remember why I decided to make them by joining the Bruderhof.

Ultimately, the most important sacrifice any of us can make is to love those around us. Denying ourselves in order to come closer to God is good as long as it does not separate us from other people. Paul’s words to the Corinthians should make our priorities clear: “Do all work miracles? Do all speak in tongues? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way . . . If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Then follows the well-known description: “Love is patient, love is kind. . .” (1 Cor. 12: 29–31, 13:3–4).

We can’t ask for a more straightforward direction.


About the author

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin works as an editor for the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, and lives at the Fox Hill Community, with her...

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