When does asceticism turn into masochism?


#1

Hello everyone. I have a deep respect for those great saints of the past who lived very simple lives and who spent their entire lives praying to Jesus and reflecting upon the Gospel.

I also respect those saints who fast and abstain from over-indulging in any activity of this world.

However, there is one aspect of these monastic/ermetical firgures that I find disturbing. I have noticed, in reading the lives of many early and medieval saints, that many of these cenobites purposely cause themselves great discomfort and even pain. For example, last night I was reading Butler’s life of the saints, and in one entry it talked about these saints in Egypt who ate only one slice of bread a day and who only slept one hour each evening. Another example are those saints who would sit in uncomfortable positions for hours on end, or who would live on the tops of pillars. Some saints even went so far as to whip themselves, and others wore prickly belts under their garments.

Now, I understand that one of the major goals of monastic life is to distance oneself from situations of sin as much as possible, and to completely devote oneself to the service of God. And I understand that, in inflicting pain upon oneself, one probably is less inclined to sin. However, I wonder if some of these saints went to far in their asceticism and rather than avoid sin, sinned in the fact that they did not take into consideration the well-being of their bodies, which, although dangerous to the soul, nontheless should be cared for, since they are given to us by God. I know that one should primarily focus on the well-being of the soul, but shouldn’t one also not mutilate the body if one doesn’t have to mutilate the body?

I know that the early Church frowned on those men who castrated themselves, and I believe that even one of the ecumenical councils bars castrates from serving in ecclesiastical positions. I am also pretty sure that the Church today condemns self-flaggelation.

Any comments are appreciated! :slight_smile:


#2

I think their point is that what they do is really for God and for their well-being. Masochism is basically a love for pain, and nothing else. It’s not giving one’s self up for something higher. It’s very basic. Asceticism isn’t that way, and its goal is to purify one’s self for God’s glory.


#3

Originally Quoted by Milliardo:

[font=Comic Sans MS]I think their point is that what they do is really for God and for their well-being. Masochism is basically a love for pain, and nothing else. It’s not giving one’s self up for something higher. It’s very basic. Asceticism isn’t that way, and its goal is to purify one’s self for God’s glory.

[/font]

Good point. But granted this, do you think that one can perhaps offer something to God that really should not be offered? For example, do you think that, in harming oneself, say by self-flaggelation, that one is offering something that should not be offered up to God?


#4

I bolded your phrase that I believe is the key. If the self-denial harms you, this cannot be pleasing to God. We are to be the temples of the Holy Spirit. Proper a[font=Arial]sceticism takes our focus off ourselves so we can focus on God.[/font]


#5

[quote=davidv]If the self-denial harms you, this cannot be pleasing to God. We are to be the temples of the Holy Spirit. Proper a[font=Arial]sceticism takes our focus off ourselves so we can focus on God.[/font]
[/quote]

Nail on the head. The discipline of moderation covers asceticism as well. Christ taught us to continue to fast, but he expected people to know what they were doing. People were able to fast and not focus on the discomfort of their body so much because fasting was so much more a part of the culture then. Today one must train one’s body to fast properly, so that the thought will not be “my stomach is eating itself,” but, rather, “I would normally be eating right now, but instead I’m offering this up to God.”

Anyway, there’s good evidence that what drove many ascetics are things like pride and competition, which is little surprise.


#6

Originally Quoted by davidv:

I bolded your phrase that I believe is the key. If the self-denial harms you, this cannot be pleasing to God. We are to be the temples of the Holy Spirit. Proper a[font=Arial]sceticism takes our focus off ourselves so we can focus on God.[/font]

Yes, I see exactly your point. So, hypothetically, if a person who normally eats a lot makes a concious effort to limit himself from 9 doughnuts a day to 3, in order to focus more fully on divine things, then might he be just as holy in God’s eyes as the die-hard who would normally eat 3 slices of bread a day, but as an ascetic eats only 1?

I guess what I’m asking is this: is God more concerned about how much we eat, or is he more concerned with how we attempt to regulate ourselves and focus on God instead of food and drinks?


#7

[quote=Madaglan]Yes, I see exactly your point. So, hypothetically, if a person who normally eats a lot makes a concious effort to limit himself from 9 doughnuts a day to 3, in order to focus more fully on divine things, then might he be just as holy in God’s eyes as the die-hard who would normally eat 3 slices of bread a day, but as an ascetic eats only 1?

I guess what I’m asking is this: is God more concerned about how much we eat, or is he more concerned with how we attempt to regulate ourselves and focus on God instead of food and drinks?
[/quote]

I believe He doesn’t care how much we eat or drink as long as it doesn’t interfere with trusting Him and obeying Him. In Matthew 22, Jesus responds to a trick question about the greatest commandent with
[left]

[size=1]38[/size] This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."[/left]
[right]Matt 22:37-40 (NRSV)[/right]

One way to read “And the second is like it” is to mean “it is the same as”. So any action, inaction, word or thought can be judged against these two statements. If they aren’t loving of God, neighbor or self they are against the will of God and therefore displeasing to Him.


#8

[quote=Madaglan]or is he more concerned with how we attempt to regulate ourselves and focus on God instead of food and drinks?
[/quote]

I think that’s the point exactly.


#9

Acseticism turns into masochism when the focus shifts from God to the self. This occurs when masochism moves from being a means to an end (i.e. communion with God, avoidance of sin) to being an end in and of itself.


#10

I’ve always wondered how to respond to a question like the title of this thread.

Personally, I am horrified by some of the voluntary penances that Saints like Gerard Majella and Rose of Lima inflicted on themselves. Gerard Majella regularly had a religious brother beat his bare back until the blood poured out of it. Rose of Lima disfigured her face with lye and beat herself and wore a metal crown under her habit that had sharp thorns turned inward piercing into the skin of her head. I honestly don’t believe the Lord expects such things of us. Fasting yes, but harming oneself, no, I just cannot see that.

Jaypeeto4
+JMJ+


#11

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