We had a very interesting conversation about penance and sacrifice on the last Ask Sister podcast. For some people those are harsh, negative words, but for others, they are words of freedom and wholeness. While discussing this, an interesting word popped up from the chat room: austerity. That’s another great word that tends to be dismissed as harsh and negative. But what does it really mean? Does it have a place in Catholic faith and spirituality today?

What does it meant to be austere? When in doubt, turn to Sister Merriam Webster!

aus·tere adj \ȯ-ˈstir also -ˈster\

1 a : stern and cold in appearance or manner; b : somber, grave
2 : morally strict : ascetic
3 : markedly simple or unadorned
4 : giving little or no scope for pleasure
5 of a wine : having the flavor of acid or tannin predominant over fruit flavors usually indicating a capacity for aging

While I appreciate #5, it’s probably not the definition we are after here. As we look through the first 4 definitions, however, there is are several distinct meanings for “austere” ranging from the more harsh, negative sense (stern, cold, no pleasure) to the positive (simple, unadorned).

In centuries past, austerity was often interpreted in practices that were indeed harsh and unhealthy. These include but are not limited to repression, self-denial and other severe “bodily penances” — that is, physical actions taken to avoid and “defeat” occasions of sin. There are many dangers to body and spirit when a person is compelled by and engages in these extreme acts. And what is extreme and severe for one person may be quite natural and necessary for another. I leave this discussion to others much wiser and knowledgeable about such matters than myself. What I’m more interested in is the “ordinary” practice of austerity.

Some of austere actions — when properly understood within Catholic spirituality and one’s relationship with God, and with the support of a spiritual mentor — can be a help to one’s spiritual life. Fasting and abstinence, for example, may be done as a penance (an act moving toward reconciliation/wholeness after one has turned away from God) or as an act of sacrifice (letting go of one good for a greater good) — listen to Ask Sister episode AS098 for more on the distinction. But these are not to be “extreme” nor unhealthy for mind, body, or spirit. Saint Jerome (who himself was a bit too overzealous when it came to austerity) cautions that us:

“Be on guard … lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.” (source)

(By the way … “true perfection” is another one of those phrases we often misinterpret … will write about that tomorrow.)

Austere practices also include fasting and abstinence — these maybe done as a penance (an act moving toward reconciliation/wholeness after one has turned away from God) but also as an act of sacrifice (letting go of one good for a greater good) -- listen to AS089 for more on the distinction.

It is this more accessible form of austerity that I think bears consideration and reflection. Also the aspect of “markedly simple or unadorned” that Sister Merriam points out in the definition above. These choices, practices, actions, and movements of the spirit are ones that are very personal and unique to each one of us. They may be things that are part of our way of life, or they might be things that we do for a defined period of time.

One small example from my own life is when I felt drawn to not eat meat. It is a choice for me that has deep spiritual meaning along with physical and emotional aspects. It is indeed “necessary” for me in the sense that it allow me to be most truly myself. For me, it is a movement toward wholeness. But just because it is that way in my life, doesn’t mean that it is a “higher good” or more spiritually significant than other practices in which others engage. It’s what works for me. I have no need to broadcast it (well, other than as an example here), or to tout my awesome vegetarianness. I don’t think of it as extreme or radical — it just is what I need to do.

Each of us has and are drawn to these kind of “austerities” in our own life. But it’s up to you to know them and choose them. A spiritual director or mentor can provide some help and guidance and I definitely recommend one if you are unsure what to do or the thing you feel compelled by has a significant spiritual, physical, and/or emotional impact on you (e.g., I talked with my doctor and with a couple of my nuns when I realized I wanted a life-long commitment to not eat meat).

What are your thoughts or wonderings about austerity? What are some other ways that you practice austerity that is “markedly simple, unadorned”?