I have been giving a series of classes recently on the early monks of the desert. The stories of these men women are full of great feats of asceticism. They go into the desert, seek to pray without ceasing, fast, live alone, give up material possessions and fight with inner and outer demons. I point out that although the way of life of these early monastics is clearly ascetic, we need to remember that asceticism comes from the Greek root meaning to train like an athlete. In other words these people weren’t out to intentionally make themselves suffer they were training for the great spiritual journey they were on.
It is with that background that I was struck by the reading of a portion of the Rule of Benedict from the other day. We read a portion of Benedict’s Rule every morning at prayer and a couple of days ago we heard that Benedict said in his monastery there should always be two kinds of cooked food at a meal, plus a generous pound of bread and fresh fruit or vegetables if available. This is important so that if someone cannot one kind of dish then they will be able to eat the other dish.
Suddenly it struck me: where is the fasting, where is the asceticism, the discipline of having to deny our food cravings, our desire for special foods or novelty at meals? Isn’t Benedict just indulging his monks weaknesses rather than demanding the spiritual asceticism demonstrated by these early saints of the desert tradition? Benedict clearly wasn’t calling on his followers to train like these early spiritual athletes. So what did asceticism mean to Benedict?
On reflecting on the contrast between the example of the desert fathers and mothers and what Benedict calls his “little rule for beginners,” an image from junior high school came to mind. Back in the days before rigorous budget cuts for public school education, we all had to take physical education every day. For kids with temporary or permanent physical limitations there was something called “adaptive PE” that was designed to accommodate limitations. Being perfectly able-bodied but completely and totally unathletic I was always somewhat envious of this option and hoped that there could somehow be physical education for us uncoordinated klutzes, some way that we could be physically active without feeling like such misfits amidst the athletes.
Now I think that this may be precisely what Benedict was doing for spiritually challenged athletes, creating an “adaptive” form of asceticism. Most of us could not begin to handle the great feats of asceticism recounted in the stories of St. Anthony of Egypt. We wouldn’t get very far in emulating the stories from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. We would fail in obedience if we were told to just sit in our cell and be silent or to go water a dry stick for weeks. And yet there are those of us who nonetheless want to seek God more deeply, more truly in our lives. This then is the way of life that Benedict sets out. He specifically calls for “nothing harsh and nothing burdensome.” He makes sure that everyone in his monastery gets what they need, enough food, enough clothes, enough support.Benedict created a spiritual way of life that average people could live, a way not for aspiring saints but ordinary people with an extraordinary desire to know God with their whole heart and their whole life.
Today, living in an intentional, celibate community with few possessions or money, a structured day, an emphasis on ministry, may seem quite ascetic to people who are used to a life without anyone imposing limits on them. But the reality is that Benedict’s way is still a way that is not designed for the spiritual athlete. Benedict’s way is for the spiritual coach potato who knows she is being called to more, not to run a spiritual marathon next week but to get up, to move, to make slow and plodding progress on the great adventure of the spiritual journey. Benedict’s way is for those who will come to know what he means when he says: “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”