27 May 2009

On Hairshirts and Penance, Continuing the Conversation (post #3)

[[Hello Sr. Laurel, I have followed the hairshirt debate in [name of listserve] and on your blog. I have not understood you well enough, I think. I do agree very much with your point about prayer. Growth is the work of The Holy Spirit, whom we encounter primarily by prayer and Communion. On the other hand, your argument seems to say that Christian discipline is unnecessary, even bad (or potentially bad). I will agree that there are pitfalls, but is it proper to conclude that because there is danger in a thing that the thing is to be avoided?

It seems that what you have said is, by analogy, that athletes should not undertake artificial work (lifting weights, etc) in striving to become better athletes. Rather, they should simply make use of the natural work that comes their way. As far as I understood Christian discipline, the point of it is to grow in virtue, which we do by practice. Discipline it is not, and should never be, motivated by dualism. But discipline seems to have its place, properly used and understood, to mortify the appetites and practice our exercise in virtue, in saying "no" to self and "yes" to God. But your argument seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that even fasting is not good. I know that right now you're saying "Hold On a minute!" I don't have your argument right, which is exactly why I'm writing you. Thank you, Sister

This is really a great question, and without engaging in a copout I need to say first, by way of introduction, that no form of penance is right for everyone (or at every point in a life), and that includes fasting. Can you see a spiritual director advocating fasting for a client with anorexia for instance? What is good praxis for one person may contribute to unhealthiness in another. What assists with the development of virtue in one person may contribute to vice and trigger a more intense struggle with the passions for another. (And by passions I mean those distorting lenses through which we see reality wrongly, like anger, greed, self-loathing, self-righteousness, perfectionism, etc.)

For the person with anorexia, for instance, it might be that many small nourishing meals during a day is penitential. It might be that lots of ice-cream or high protein shakes is one part of genuine penance --- not merely because eating these is difficult, though that will be true, but because it is healthful in this particular case both physically, and spiritually. At the same time therapy will be penitential (as it is for most of us), and again not merely because it is difficult, though that will be true, but because it leads to a more whole and holy life. It humanizes and will contribute to prayer, that is, to a life of genuine attentiveness to the voice and activity of a merciful and loving God in our lives.

In this sense there is nothing artificial about the discipline of eating many small nourishing meals or undertaking the challenge and difficulty of therapy. These are natural forms of attentiveness to one's true needs in such a situation. Note well that simply because something is natural as opposed to artificial does not mean it does not require discipline. When I spoke critically about imposing artificial penances I was not ruling out discipline (which is emphatically NOT the same thing as a phrase I did use, "taking the discipline" -- a form of self-flagellation) or even referring to it; I take the need for discipline in the spiritual life for granted as a necessity --- hence my comment on the possible accuracy of the term ascesis rather than penance in some situations. Indeed I am sure you know yourself how demanding the discipline of regular prayer, journaling, a balanced eremitical (or spiritual) life actually is NATURALLY. In fact, many might be surprised to discover how truly demanding is the discipline of being genuinely attentive, or determining what one actually needs to be truly human in every moment of life. Living fully requires discipline of all kinds, but in all these cases the discipline is holistic and serves the greater goal and aim or telos of one's being.

Moreover, my use of the terms artificial and natural (did I actually use THAT word other than implicitly?) therefore, were used within the context of prayer and authentic humanity. What would be natural would be those things which flowed from or were clearly and genuinely called for by prayer and lead back to it by fostering its regularization, extension, and deepening in my life. What would be artificial is some form of penance which was more extrinsic to and not linked in this way; it would be one which showed no organic relationship with prayer and humanization, or even worse, which flowed from (or was imposed in such a way as to hook into and feed from or even exacerbate) darker or more sinister dimensions of the human psyche, or from drives which were baser and unconscious.

Growth in virtue is certainly something I have been referring to in other words, therefore, for growth in virtue is growth in authentic humanity and all the qualities thereof. And yes, such growth requires praxis which serves to mortify that which fails to serve or is an obstacle to this growth. More importantly, this is a praxis which should integrate the various aspects of the person so that they become an articulate whole (a prayer) reflecting the Word and glory of God. Quite often, however, in the history of penitential practice, I think people have adopted various activities which have no intention or chance of integrating the disparate drives and aspects of the human personality. Above all they were not inspired or a response to grace, and because of this, they were destructive and exacerbated the state of sin (brokenness, alienation, etc) more often than not.

If I were to use your analogy of the athlete, for instance, and if I were to accept that it is desirable for the person to grow as an athlete, then ascesis is a natural consequence of that telos or goal. Weight lifting, eating patterns that are far from normal (the normative pattern), sufficient rest, etc, would all be forms of discipline the person should engage in. These would be not necessarily be artificial or extrinsic to the nature and goal of human athleticism. On the other hand, taking steroids or other forms of actual abuse would not be natural or acceptable forms of ascesis because the person themselves suffer in both short and long terms. Some sort of pure athleticism might be enhanced (an atheleticism of strength, speed, size, with reference to physicality, metabolism and performance per se) but it would not be human athleticism. Instead it reduces human athleticism to the level of enhanced physiological functions achieved at the expense of the accomplishment and reality of the whole person. or, in other words, while the muscles develop and function superbly, they do so only at the expense of the athlete himself (and so, at the expense of true athleticism). I think the analogy can be extended to the use of such things as hair shirts, taking the discipline, the wearing of the cilice, etc. We see this in other areas of life as well; people take drugs to enhance sexual performance and see sexual intercourse as a form of bedroom gymnastics focused on "performing" while divorcing all of this from true marriage or the growth of the spouses together in holiness and wholeness.

So, yes, I agree completely that simply because a thing can be abused does not mean it should be avoided; rather it should be used with genuine care, attentiveness, and insight. However, in a psychologically more sophisticated age and culture we should certainly know to eschew those things which are abusive (or otherwise questionable) in and of themselves. In my understanding of asceticism there is a difference between discipline and abusive behavior or praxis. More, there is a vast difference between praxis which flows from and nourishes prayer and the actual becoming of prayer which is the telos of our vocations to incarnate the Word of God and that which is imposed extrinsically and apart from this context --- especially when such praxis is careless and perhaps wholly unaware of the darker or unconscious drives, urges and dimensions of the human psyche, or when such practice is rooted in a loathing of the body and materiality/corporeality. It is not the abuse of a practice I have decried in my earlier posts, but practice which is of itself abusive and rooted in a lack of esteem for the principle and reality of authentic incarnation.

I hope this helps. Of course, please get back to me if I missed something in your post or raised more questions. Thanks once again for continuing and furthering the conversation.