Toward a New Asceticism

by Margaret R. Miles

Margaret R. Miles is dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. A portion of her article is based on her book Desire and Delight: A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions (Crossroad, 1992).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 28, 1981, pp. 1097-1098. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We must reclaim the use of ascetic practices as tools for the care of both body and soul, for we have ignored the bodily practices that recognize and affirm our incarnated life in which what we do is as important as what we think.

In the theological discourse of our time, the word "asceticism" has become one that collects everything we want to reject in ourselves and in historical Christian tradition. Theologies of embodiment, of play and of sexual identity celebrate the demise of asceticism. We lump together all historical asceticism and indicate our evaluation of it by labeling it "masochism." This method distorts and foreshortens historical phenomena and constructs a past that is nothing but caricature. But an even more unfortunate result of the cavalier treatment of historical asceticism is the loss of ascetic practices as tools for the present care and cure of our own bodies and souls.

When we try to understand asceticism we have to overcome a stereotype of the emaciated ascetic with the tortured face of a determined but inexperienced jogger. This stereotype, even though it was sometimes accurate, does not validate our caricature of all asceticism as anti-life, perverted and masochistic. In neglecting to take seriously the claim of historic Christian authors that changes in the habits and condition of the body open the soil to insight, we ignore a useful tool for the resolution and regeneration of mind and body. Historic authors were unanimous in insisting that Christian asceticism is for the purpose of ordering one’s life, in all aspects of daily thought and activity, toward the new life which has become available to human beings in Jesus Christ.

Asceticism does not necessarily imply a pejorative view of the human body. Historic authors describe two models based on two different rationales for ascetic practices. In the first model there is a closed energy system in which the soul gathers energy at the expense of the body. According to the early church fathers, "When the soul grows strong, the body withers; when the body grows strong, the soul withers." This model conflicts with the Christian affirmation of the body that is implicit in the doctrines of creation, incarnation and the resurrection of the body. Yet this "old asceticism" is the rationale -- implicit or explicit -- which most historical treatises on asceticism assume.

But historic sources describe a second model according to which the cooperative activity of soul and body in an ascetic discipline benefits the whole person. Herein, the body was seen neither as foil for the soul nor as a problem, but as the condition of human being, learning and salvation. The rationale for ascetic practice based on this model assumes the permanent and intimate connection of soul and body so that when the state of the body is altered by ascetic practice, the soul is affected -- opened or made vulnerable. On the other hand, when the body is kept in the same state of nourishment and in patterns of activity, the psyche retains the ironclad protection of its habituated condition. I will call this model "the new asceticism," not because it is never found in historic ascetical treatises -- it is frequently used there -- but because it presents an understanding of ascetic practices which is still important and useful for us.

Because we have collapsed all asceticism into the first model, we have not understood completely the potential usefulness of the second. Ironically, because we have failed to adapt ascetic practices to our needs, we have reverted to the "old asceticism" that we wanted to reject. Because we think that we have rejected asceticism, we do not recognize the extent to which behavior patterns based on the first model are operative in contemporary life. Many of us live in cities with more concrete than green growth; we live with a noise level that fatigues us; we breathe polluted air, and if we run or cycle in order to exercise, we breathe more of it than if we drive or walk. We are ascetics of the "old" sort; we "enrich the mind" and act out our psychic agenda at the direct and daily expense of our bodies. Overeating, promiscuity, drug dependence, overwork, a killing life pace and a polluted environment all drain the body’s energy.

If we could reject such practices. what might constitute a new asceticism for our time? First, it must consist of practices fully as good for body as for soul. The body, described by Christian faith as an integral and permanent aspect of human being, must be explicitly cared for and enhanced by any ascetic practice that we accept as good for our souls. Second, ascetic practices must be temporary, consciously chosen and carefully designed to locate and correct a particular debilitating habit pattern.

These criteria do not permit any general prescriptive rules that would be good for everybody at any one time. They require personalized interpretation based either on self-knowledge or on skillful spiritual direction. No one who does not understand a person’s particular patterns can suggest precisely the ascetic practice that would make these patterns conscious and begin to correct them. Yet because of the uniformity of contemporary culture by which all of us are shaped, we can make some suggestions that are likely to benefit most of us at one time or another during our lifetime.

In Christian tradition, the most consistently emphasized ascetic practice which meets the requirements for a new asceticism is fasting. Even a small experiment like skipping one meal is enough to demonstrate to most of us the degree to which we have become addicted to food, not only as our bodies require and enjoy it, but also for organizing our days. One day’s worth of fasting will demonstrate an astonishingly different experience of time during that day. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain describes the management of time in a tuberculosis sanatorium: so that the day will not weigh oppressively on the patients, it is broken every two or three hours with meals or snacks. Always eating or looking forward to eating, the patients find themselves whizzing through days, months and even years without noticing them.

To a lesser degree, this principle is operative in our lives. Breaking our eating patterns, even briefly, both teaches us the psychological dimension of our attachment to food and to mealtimes, and loosens that attachment so that it never again has quite the strength that it had when we were not conscious of it. Fasting is also good for the body; short fasts lasting from one to three days allow it to rest from its constant labor of digestion.

Another sort of fasting whose usefulness is fully demonstrated only by doing it is abstention from the media. The experience of disorientation and discomfort which is the result of stopping the constant barrage of words and images from newspapers, magazines and television shows us to what a large extent our consciousness is usually controlled and ordered by the media.

Various disciplines of meditation and prayer involving breathing exercises and bodily postures can be useful for gathering and concentrating attention and energy. Physical exercise is also helpful and reminds us of what the fourth century theologian of the desert ascetics, Evagrius Ponticus, called "the grace of the Creator in giving us a body." It is important to become aware of the way in which various forms of exercise translate directly into the "tone" of the soul. In addition, there is the value of temporary, deliberately chosen periods of celibacy, of solitude, of concentration on an important task, even periods of silence. Any of these ascetic practices might at some time be highly effective and valuable for locating and treating the habituation and addiction that result finally in a dullness of body and mind.

They did, in fact, find simple and humble ways to use bodily practices that were helpful. We have ignored the bodily practices that recognize and affirm our incarnated life, in which what we do is as important as what we think. Asceticism is an effective tool for weaving into one’s daily existence the life of Jesus Christ, which is given not only to souls but to embodied human beings.