I would establish right at the outset that concrete bodily devotion is not the measure of truth, nor is it some kind of competition. It is, however, a indisputable part of authentic spirituality, and the great interest of humanity in doing uncomfortable things in their search for meaning bears tangible testimony to this fact. Asceticism has of course been abused at times, just like any other virtue, but this does not diminish its core value.
Fasting, meditation, and even serious prayer have come to be regarded as crude and monkish - relics of a sincere but misguided medieval piety. We like to quote Christ's words to the Pharisees - "Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?" - and leave off that last inconvenient bit - "But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days."
In 1 Chronicles 21, King David is seeking a place to make an offering to the Lord following the plague that swept through Israel as a result of the King's sinful census. The Lord led him to the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, who gladly offers what he has to the King:
"Take it! Let my lord the king do whatever pleases him. Look, I will give the oxen for the burnt offerings, the threshing sledges for the wood, and the wheat for the grain offering. I will give all this."
Today, most would say that this offer constitutes an open door and should be received as a gift from God. But David saw otherwise, and he responds to Araunah with this profound declaration of devotion:
"No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing."
Now surely this is irrational. God is concerned with the offering, not with its cost to the giver!
Or is he?
Think for a moment about the word sacrifice. The word implies a sense of cost - a sense of giving up or going without. Our modern definition of sacrifice as something we put in the offering plate on Sunday is scandalously inadequate. "God does not need our money," we declare. True enough: He doesn't. He wants something more.
"More than just your cash and coin / I want your time - I want your voice / I want the things you just can't give me...." (-dW)
Even Paul, writing to the Philippians and commending their diligence in giving, alluded to this fundamental truth. He is glad of their generosity, "not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account." (Philippians 4:17)
The important thing about the gift is what it works in the giver. That is why it is more blessed to give than to receive. That is why the whole structure of Christianity seems upside-down to the rest of the world, and that is why we must diligently fight the spiritual entropy that would turn it all around and tame the outrageous nature of the faith.
In the wake of the Reformation, there is considerable stigma attached to the idea of "earning your salvation" or anything that resembles "works." This is well and good, as far as it goes, but its practical effect has been to not only prevent Christians from working for their salvation, but to prevent them from working at all. This theological sleight-of-hand, combined with the unprecedented rise of materialism and creature-comforts throughout the civilized world, has dealt a staggering blow to the struggling vestiges of authentic Christian spirituality.
The disciplines do not produce holiness, but real holiness always produces the disciplines. Making sawdust does not in itself make you a carpenter, but this does not in any way diminish the fact that real carpenters will indeed make sawdust. An authentic love of God produces an authentic passion for holiness which produces authentic asceticism. The mill of sanctification always grinds the same way.
I hope to revisit this topic and explore more of the particulars later on. This is only an introduction - and a cursory one - to the challenge. Will the Church rise up and embrace the cost of discipleship, or will she turn aside to easier paths?
Image courtesy of plus.maths.org