Austerity, Thou Art My Friend

Blog Published: January 17, 2012
By Sister Julie

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”?

Archived Comments

marla January 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm

It boils down to the same thing every time: no extremes. We do not hurt our bodies for God because God does not want us to hurt our bodies. There is a tremendous difference between doing without for morality’s sake, or simplicity’s sake, and doing without to the point of harm. And self-flagellation or other purposefully harmful practices of old are not healthy or advised. Right?

Barbara January 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I think that austerity is a virtue/practice badly needed in our society with an economy based on unsustainable consumption and greed. For me it means living simply – especially in my desires.

Marsha West January 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Brennan Manning wrote a book – I think the title was “The Furious Love of God” in which he painted a picture which I can only paraphrase here (I gave the book away a long time ago). He proposes a young bridegroom who works in the city and thinks all day about his beloved young wife and how wonderful it will be to get home to spend time with her. He picks up roses on his way home.

When he gets there, the house is silent – he calls to her and she answers from the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table having made lists on a pad of paper. She asks him to sit down so she can share her lists. One is about her failures during the day; another is a list of what she has done please him. On the first, she spilled some milk. She forgot to think about him every second of the day. And so forth. On the second, she has written that she refused to watch TV or listen to the radio all day, she ate something unappetizing for lunch.

He reads the list with shock and horror – but they don’t get past her ideas about what it takes to love him . . .

That’s what I think a lot of our examination of conscience and our efforts to please God look like – mechanical abuse of oneself; contrived practices of self-denial that we think would somehow please Him. But which actually prevent us from receiving his love.

Jansenism was a movement that began in France in the 1600′s. It emphasized human depravity, incorporated of some elements of Calvinism, insisted that one should not attempt to receive communion unless and until one had achieved a high degree of perfection. Later, by 1700 it had been entirely condemned as heresy. However, some Jansenistic thought continued (and continues) to be found in the church into recent times. Much of the sort of “corporal mortifications” which were practiced in the past had their roots in that kind of thinking.

I thought the Brennan Manning story was very telling — it should serve as a reminder as to what sort of spiritual practices open us to the love of God and which actually draw us away from receiving what he wants to give us.

It’s not that rigor is a bad thing – we all accept that an athlete must train and undergo certain kinds of exercise and self-denial in order to become capable of physical achievement. We know that dieting for health (and appearance) requires a certain degree of self-control. A student must often stay up late finishing an essay or memorizing theorems.

But we don’t (or shouldn’t) beat ourselves up as a way of proving our devotion to God. We ought do what we do to gain something positive and life-giving. So I agree with Marla and what she says above . . .

marla January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

i love brennan manning, and this story is just one example of why. as regards your accounting of history and how we were once advised to be nearly perfect before receiving communion: i confessed some ongoing anger and resentment in the sacrament of reconciliation once (well, many times, but this anecdote concerns one time). since the issue was unresolved as i left the confessional, i asked the priest, my good friend, “so, should i refrain from taking communion?” he looked at me with great kindness, the kindness i imagine god/jesus looking at me with, and said, “why would you ever purposely deny yourself what god freely gives?” i never asked again.

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