I’ve always been Catholic, but for years now the lives of the saints have struck me as falling somewhere an a continuum from disheartening to repugnant. Their extreme asceticism and renunciation was an ideal that was either unattainable or disgusting, though I knew I had to find some way to see it as good. The few times I actually tried fasting I found it illuminating and beneficial, but the insight seemed hard to keep one’s focus on, and so I’d find myself looking at the saints with the same yuck-feelings. If that’s sanctity, I thought, it’s a life for someone else. This post is not about shaking off those feelings – most of them remain. But I have found ways to contextualize them in helpful ways, most of all by seeing spirituality as a sort of athletic activity.

Askesis is from the root Askeo meaning to train or to exercise, where (as in English) the central meaning of the term is athletic training. Paul, who was nothing if not combative and energetic, uses the term everywhere as metaphor for the spiritual life, though most quotably in 2 Tim. 4:7  “I have fought the good fight” . The locus classicus of this spirituality is 1 Cor. 9: 24-27:

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

25And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.

26I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Now athletic training is on the one hand good for everyone, and on the other hand impossible for all but a few. There’s almost certainly a team or a sport out there for everyone, from kindergarten t-ball to geriatric water-robics. But to be an athlete simpliciter is the province of a few. The value of being an athlete simply (or, nowadays, a professional) is certainly not in providing an activity that anyone can perform, and the fact that almost no one can perform it will always be a part of the goodness it offers. But while almost no one can participate in professional sports as an athlete, we nevertheless can derive great meaning from participating in them as spectators, followers, and fans. This might be a part of the older attraction to patron saints.

Now if you understood the saints as giving an ideal that we are all called to, sanctity could only be disheartening. You might as well tell me to compete in the Olympics or win the heavyweight title. That’s not happening. Even the first stage of the process isn’t happening. But one can love the performance of the saints- we’re even called to love it. This love doesn’t spur action in the sense of making me think I should do it myself – it’s part of the very attraction of the saints that they are doing what I am incapable of. But fandom to the saints does spur changes in action in a different way: it redefines one’s sense of glory, promotes the value of spiritual good, and gives a deeper sense of the church as a place where we participate in spiritual excellence in part by cheering for things we could never do ourselves.



  1. Dylan said,

    March 16, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    My two cents (since I love asceticism but get that it is a hard sell … and, you know, difficult to actually do):

    One thing I’ve noticed about the lives of the saints, which I probably don’t read often enough, is that the authors usually fill them with Scriptural and specifically Christological allusions. I take the intention to be that this person (the saint) did a good job of witnessing to Christ by his/her life. And if saints are nearly impossible to imitate, how much more so the Son of God? I think degrees of approximation must be assumed. We could just read the Gospels, but the lives of the saints help us see what it looks like to try really hard and do really well at imitating Christ, despite inevitably failing all the time.

    Regarding the more extreme stuff, I usually just read past it. Basically, it’s weird (at best) and not for me. We are all called to asceticism, however, but only as is fitting with our given vocations. Since most canonized saints were monastics or otherwise celibate, they had more free time to put towards spiritually “exercising” and, naturally, their progress in the spiritual life is more obvious, even if sometimes attained through more peculiar methods. But many fathers seem to be realists, too. St. Ambrose distinguished between ordinary and perfect Christian duties, and in the East the ideal of apatheia (complete dispassion) was replaced with metriopatheia (moderation of the passions) for the average person (see Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind). So again, I think degrees of approximation are always meant to be assumed.

    One point of All Saints Day, to my knowledge, is to recognize that there are far more saints than those who have been canonized, many of whom, I would suspect, lived seemingly “ordinary” lives—marrying, having kids, working, getting frustrated from time to time over stupid little things like tripping over a child’s toys, and so on. The ascetic perspective, defined as you have above, can be applied to any situation or station of life: it bids us to see everything in life as potentially virtue-forming. While we in the world don’t have the advantage of singularity of focus, we are given all sorts of little annoyances to teach us patience and humility.

    Light, realistic fasting, solitude, and other monkish disciplines can help us see those opportunities for what they really are, but overdoing those disciplines as if one were a monk when one is not is just as much a spiritual danger as shirking the importance of these altogether. If you try fasting again, I’d say keep it really light at first, like no meat or ice cream, and just try to do it regularly (like Wednesdays and Fridays and Lent and Advent). Total fasts can be great, but according to Cassian the fathers didn’t even recommend them for the average monk, not to mention the average layperson.

  2. Max Fessor said,

    March 16, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    Longtime reader, first time commenter. I found this entry very interesting, mainly because I have always had the opposite reaction to the notion of asceticism. It is possible to sound uncharitable to generalizing about these things, so please take the following as only an abstract observation.

    I found usually found the idea of having to marry, rear children for 20-30 years, and constantly focus on family “issues” to be enormously distracting from the ideal philosophical Christian life. I recall Erasmus saying somewhere that he loathed the idea of marriage, especially since it would take him away from his beloved studies. Others in Erasmus’ time emphasized the Protestant renunciation of the ascetic lifestyle fundamentally altered Christian piety in European culture.

    But this gets to a paradox at the center of Christian spirituality. For all of the modern political debates about “family values” and the ideology of the sanctification of childhood, Christianity has a robust history of renouncing these things. And I think one of the key issues here is the possibility of worldly renunciation. There is something fundamentally unnatural about an ascetic male Christian retiring to his cloister to meditate and study his whole life. And yet I find that path one of the most compelling forms of life in Christianity. M. B. Pranger recently wrote very intelligently on this topic in his book The Artificiality of Christianity (Stanford University Press).

    These issues recently came to a head for me in a conversation I had with a prominent Jewish philosopher at my university. As an observant Jewish man, he noted to me that the idea of being fruitful and multiplying was a mitzvah. He noted that an acetic lifestyle for Jew was an abomination, and suggested that Judaism has never even remotely entertained the idea of monastic withdrawal. From our discussion it became clear to me that, while Christianity’s emphasis on this ideal has usually been problematic due to its complex wrestling with the passions, there is something sui generis about it. As a lifestyle, I find the prospect of living in a monastic community studying, praying, meditating on the first principle of the cosmos, and being withdrawn from the demands of sexuality and family responsibility infinitely more compelling as a religious vision than the notion of being a “family man” spawning seven children who prove endlessly distracting. I find the family life as disheartening to repugnant as you do the acetic life. I think each lifestyle can be viewed as nihilistic, but that would be another debate/discussion. I would welcome others’ views.

    • Max Fessor said,

      March 16, 2015 at 10:06 pm

      Please pardon the many typos in my previous post. I was typing it on the run.

    • Socrates said,

      March 17, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      Dear Mr. Fessor:

      What the philosophy professor follows is Rabbinical Judaism, which is basically the Judaism of the Pharisees modified from Jesus’s time. In many ways it is an “anti-religion,” defining itself in opposition with the Church, the other religion to come out of Temple Judaism.

      Now, what a “Jew” is has always been fluid, but it was much more fluid in Jesus’s time than latter on, since, when the Jews were exiled, they had to keep a stricter cultural conformity so that the culture would continue in such small, fragmented groups. But in the first century, there were the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Zealots (a notable subsect of the Pharisee group), and later on, the Christians. Only later did being a Jew mean being something of a Pharisee. Historically speaking, the emphasis on procreation you speak of might be in part influenced by the Exile as well (although Jews have always glorified procreation and children).

      The Essenes in particular are a group to look at regarding this topic, because they were similar in many ways to what we Christians call the Desert Fathers. The Essenes emphasized fasting, contemplative prayer, celibacy (although marriage was permitted, but discouraged), and communal ownership of property, much like the Desert Monks in Egypt and eventually the other Orders of Monks. They also were obsessed with cleanliness, as they would ritually bath every morning (in a mikveh), and even went so far as refraining from defecation on the Sabbath! It is actually possible that St. John the Baptist was of this group (or at least sympathetic with it).

      This group died out after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, along with the Sadducees and Zealots, leaving the Pharisees and the Christians as the only remaining Jewish groups, both which survive to today.

      I think that Jesus would identify mostly with the Pharisee tradition, with some ideas sympathetic with the Essenes. In the Gospels, Christ is found arguing not some much that the Pharisees were wrong, but more along the line that they had the wrong focus regarding the Law, putting to much focus on the little parts of the Law against the more important ones, and that their behavior was self-righteous and hypocritical. He even claims that they “sit in the Chair of Moses” (a prefiguation of the Chair of St. Peter, I believe) On the other hand, he refutes the Sadducees outright (they denied oral tradition and believed in the Jewish version of “sola Scriptura”), and he obviously believed in the Prophets. Other then the possibility of St. John being a Essene, neither the Essenes nor the Zealots are mentioned in the New Testament.

      To put it simply, Judaism has historically had monastical groups, in both the Essene and Christian forms (you can’t just simply divorce Judaism and Christianity). You might be interested in studying them.

      Christi pax,


      • Dante Aligheri said,

        March 23, 2015 at 11:50 pm

        Socrates, if I may add some things concerning these Jewish sects:

        It is true that marriage was the norm for Jewish life, even in the 1st century. Actually, Jesus was closest to the Pharisees although John the Baptist and his followers (and probably Jesus himself) had an apocalyptic outlook similar to the Essenes. Like Jesus, the Pharisees actually were very much about the common people. They wanted to make “a nation of priests,” that is, democratize observance of the Torah and democratize Temple holiness. Torah was not about works-righteousness but about living out the covenant already given to the People of God, to set them apart as God’s holy people. This set the Pharisees against the perceived elitism of the Temple priesthood, the Sadducees.

        Much more explicitly, the Essenes also existed in the context of the central place of the Jerusalem Temple. For them, the old hierarchy begun under the Maccabees had been hopelessly corrupt. In fact, their services in the Temple were for nought. Israel, for all intents, was still in spiritual exile (as the Pharisees also believed, per N.T. Wright). The Essenes believed that their communities were the eschatological Israel, who shall shine as sparks through the stubble and rule like angels over the nations in the firmament – that their meal and prayer services represented true Temple liturgy – that the meeting point between the liturgies of the angels before the throne of God and God’s children on earth was not in the Temple but in fact among their community. By the way, avoiding defecation on the Sabbath was an explicit move to imitate angelic life as angels consumed the Spirit directly and ate heavenly food without defecating (cf. Andrei Orlov). By this time, it was widely regarded that the righteous would be like angels in the next age and so tried to imitate the liturgical life of the heavens in the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ in the current age. The ‘New Covenant’ was already made with the Essenes, in the Spirit, and would be revealed in the final conflict between sons of Belial and the sons of God. Like monastics, they maintained ritual purity so as to establish a living Temple of God – a foretaste of the Age to Come. For Philo, Moses was the paradigm of this Jewish realized eschatology – portraying what happened on Mt. Sinai in the image of the initiator into an ecstatic mystery religion, Moses ascending into the archetype of the forms.

        I’d highly recommend anything by April DeConick, Andrei Orlov, and, with reservation, Crispin Fletcher-Louis on the connections among Temple, angelomorphic language, the eschatological righteous, Jewish throne and chariot mysticism, Jewish ‘Divine Name’ theurgy, and the origins of Christian monasticism.

        In Egypt, there were also an Jewish exile community called the Theraputae who operated along similar lines. With them, some scholars have assigned the fascinating 1st century work called ‘Joseph and Aseneth’ which already uses the themes of Spirit vs. flesh, new man and old man, so common in Paul as an intra-Jewish conversion or rebirth into the new Israel. John the Baptist absorbed this new covenant language, and so his baptisms were about undergoing a new Exodus in preparation for the new covenant and the fall of the powers just as Pharaoh had fallen.

        The basic idea is that the Temple experience – that is, purifying oneself to come into the presence of God, see or hear God face to face and thus transforming one’s inner soul, in the heavens among the angels, anticipating the world to come – was democratized by different sects. It was this ideal that stands behind incipient Christian monasticism, that now the Christian in the Spirit could go out and have that vision of Christ in the flesh just as a chariot mystic could, an experience which divinizes the soul. What the Jews had hoped for had in fact come, and the eschaton could be experienced now and by everyone. So the early ascetics believed they were imitating life in heaven, becoming like angels not “giving in marriage.”

        They subordinated the flesh to the en-Spirited soul which, following the influence of Greek vocabulary, they believed possessed the true image of God. Thus, in Origen and the Cappadocians, they speak of ‘oikeosis’ (cf. Ilaria Ramelli’s masterful history of the idea of apokatastasis – which really is more than just tracing this controversial idea but covers the whole breadth of Christianity’s selective engagement with Greek thought) where the image of God in the soul restores the wholeness of the flesh through ascesis, taking the body by the soul’s coattails, so to speak, as image of God to the Logos of which it is an image. Then the eschatological ‘resurrection’ of Christ’s Body at the end of time is in fact the resurrection of all flesh, conforming it to the Logos as the individual body is conformed to the image of God in the soul. Christ’s entire resurrected Body, of which Easter is prefiguration, is in fact the whole of creation joined with the Logos. Thus I have heard the Orthodox say that the Church as Body of Christ begins with the beginning of creation itself.

        Now, admittedly, there is smuggled in a definite dualism between flesh and spirit, especially post-Origen. Ramelli emphasizes though it wasn’t as if the creation itself was evil but that the human passions as currently constituted and in fact the materiality of the human body had been distorted – very Augustinian, of course, but from Ramelli’s depiction some of the desert fathers saw it in a much more physicalist way, a literal fall of an angel-like but “materialish” being out of the heavens away from the ardent and flaming love of the Logos.

  3. March 16, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Note there are athletes who are welcoming and appreciative of amateurs, novices and fans, respectful to their peers, coaches, referees, judges and governors, and those who are not. Likewise among ascetics, there are Zosimas and Feraponts.

    On this analogy, radiant holiness and deepest spiritual desolation would not be divided by heroism or spectacle, but a kind of sportsmanship.

  4. Socrates said,

    March 19, 2015 at 7:48 am

    I though this might be appropriate:

    “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers has been for centuries an inspiration to those Christians who strove for an uncompromising obedience to the word and to the spirit of the Gospel; yet the modern reader, used to an intellectual, discursive way of exposition and also to greater emotional effusions in mystical literature may find this direct challenge difficult to face and even more difficult to assimilate and to apply to everyday life. This prompts me to give here a few explanations and to try to bring out some of the features which seem to me essential in the attitude to life of these giants of the spirit.

    The first thing that strikes a reader is the insistence in the stress laid on the ascetic endeavour. Modern man seeks mainly for ‘experience’ – putting himself at the centre of things he wishes to make them subservient to this aim; too often, even God becomes the source from which the highest experience flows, instead of being Him Whom we adore, worship, and are prepared to serve, whatever the cost to us. Such an attitude was unknown to the Desert, moreover, the Desert repudiated it as sacrilegious: the experiential knowledge which God in His infinite Love and condescension gives to those who seek Him with their whole heart is always a gift; its essential, abiding quality is its gratuity: it is an act of Divine Love and cannot therefore be deserved. The first Beatitude stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God’ – blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing which they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’ it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of
    the Son of God, His life, the Agony of the Garden, the dereliction of the Cross – the Blood of Christ. To be, to be possessed of the gift of life and to be granted all that makes its richness means to be loved by God; and those who know this, free from any delusion that they can exist or possess apart from this mystery of love have entered into the Kingdom of God which is the Kingdom of Love. What then shall be their response to this generous, self-effacing, sacrificial Love? An endeavour to respond to love for love, as there is no other way of acknowledging love. And this response is the ascetic endeavour, which can be summed up in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘Renounce yourself, take up your Cross and follow Me’. To recognize one’s own nonentity and discover the secret of the Kingdom is not enough: the King of Love must be enthroned in our mind and heart, take undivided possession of our will and make of our very bodies the Temples of the Holy Ghost. This small particle of the Cosmos, which is our soul and body must be conquered, freed by a lifelong struggle from enslavement to the world and to the devil, freed as if it were an occupied country and restored to its legitimate King. ‘Render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s and to God that which is God’s’: the coins of the earthly kings bear their mark, Man bears the imprint of God’s Image. He belongs to Him solely and totally; and nothing, no effort, no sacrifice is too great to render to God what is His. This is the very basis of an ascetic understanding of life.

    Yet many will be surprised by the insistence of the Sayings on what seem to be incredible feats of physical endurance. Are these at the centre of a spiritual life? Why not tell us more about the secret, inner life of these men and women? Because the life of the Spirit cannot be conveyed, except in images and analogies which are deceptive: those who know do not need them, and those who do not know are only led by them to partake imaginatively, but not really, in a world which to many is still out of reach. Many can live either by the Word of God or by deriving his precarious existence from the earth, which ultimately will claim back what is its own; the more one is rooted in God, the less one depends on the transitory gifts of the earth. To describe to what degree the dwellers of the Desert were free from our usual necessities is the only way we possess to convey both how perfectly rooted they were in the life-giving realm of God, and also how different the world of the Spirit is from what we ima- gine it to be when we confuse the highest achievements of the psyche with the life which God the Holy Spirit pours into the soul and body of the faithful; ‘among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he’.

    The men and women of whom the Sayings speak were Christians who received the challenge of the Gospel with all earnestness and wanted to respond to it uncomprisingly, as generously as God, with their whole selves. Some built their whole life on one Word of the Gospel, some on one glimpse of Eternity seen in the eyes, the behaviour, the whole personality of an Elder. Men of high rank in the world and of high culture came to monks without any worldly knowledge because ‘they knew not the first letters of the book of Wisdom which the others possessed’.

    We have a great deal to learn from their integrity and their unrelenting courage, from their vision of God – so Holy, so great, possessed of such a love, that nothing less than one’s whole being could respond to it. These were men and women who had reached a humility of which we have no idea, because it is not rooted in an hypocritical or contrived depreciation of self, but in the vision of God, and a humbling experience of being so loved. They were ascetics, ruthless to themselves, yet so human, so immensely compassionate not only to the needs of men but also to their frailty and their sins; men and women wrapped in a depth of inner silence of which we have no idea and who taught by ‘Being’, not by speech: ‘If a man cannot understand my silence, he will never understand my words.’ If we wish to understand the sayings of the Fathers, let us approach them with veneration, silencing our judgments and our own thoughts in order to meet them on their own ground and perhaps to partake ultimately – if we prove able to emulate their earnestness in the search, their ruthless determination, their infinite compassion – in their own silent communion with God.”

    -Anthony of Sourozh:

    Christi pax,


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