‘We are not born Christians, we become Christians’ (Tertullian). This ‘becoming’ is the space in which Christian asceticism reveals its meaning. The word asceticism is suspect today, if not completely absurd and incomprehensible for many people, including – and this is particularly significant – quite a few Christians. Derived from the Greek verb askein (to train or practise), the term asceticism indicates a form of methodical training, a repeated exercise, an effort directed towards the acquisition of a specific ability or area of competence. We might think of an athlete, an artist, or a soldier – each trains by repeating over and over the same movements or gestures in order to reach a high level of performance. Asceticism, therefore, is first of all a human necessity, because our growth and ‘humanization’ includes a dimension of interior growth that should correspond to our physical development. We need to know how to say ‘no’ if we want to be able to say ‘yes’: ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways,’ writes St Paul (1 Corinthians 13.11). In Christian life, which is rebirth to a new life in Christ and the adaptation of our own life to God’s life, we need to learn ‘unnatural’ capacities such as prayer and love for our enemies – and this is impossible without practice and constant effort. Unfortunately, the current cultural myth of spontaneity and permanent adolescence, which sees effort and authenticity as opposed to one another, is a serious obstacle to human maturation and makes it difficult for us to understand why asceticism is essential to spiritual growth. …
Asceticism is at the service of the Christian revelation that attests that our true freedom is revealed when we are open to the gift of God and capable of giving ourselves for love of God and our neighbour. Our ascetic discipline has the effect of liberating us from philautia (self-love, egocentrism) and transforming us from individuals into people capable of communion, love, and the free gift of ourselves. Again, the words of a desert father reveal that the early Christian tradition recognized its own errors: ‘Many have prostrated themselves without the slightest discernment, and have left without gaining anything at all. Our mouths smell bad because of our fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all of the Psalms, but we do not have what God seeks – love and humility.’ We need to be intelligent and discerning in our asceticism if we want to please God, and if we want to become more, and not less, human. An intelligent asceticism can help us in our task of making our life a masterpiece, a work of art. Perhaps it is not by chance that the verb askein, in ancient Greek literature, is also used to designate the work of the artist. This, then, is the goal of asceticism: to situate the life of the Christian in the domain of beauty, which in Christianity is another name for holiness.
Enzo Bianchi, Words of Spirituality, (SPCK, 2002) 3-5.
I had been intending to simply review this book, but it is not such an easy book to review, comprising forty five shortish reflections. However, it is not a compilation of isolated reflections, but rather an intertwined whole in which different themes on the spiritual life evoke and complement one another in a sort of spiral movement. I think that the best that I can do is to continue to provide some extracts from the book which may entice readers to seek it out as it really is a book that can only be read – and re-read – rather than summarised.
However, it may be good to say something to introduce the author and his community as he (and they) do not seem to be that well-known in the English speaking world. And – rather ironically – they often seem to be better known among Orthodox than among Catholics.
Brother Enzo Bianchi is the founder and prior of the monastic community of Bose in northern Italy and a respected Christian voice in Italy. (He’s also an excellent chef, but that’s another story). Founded in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, they are one of the more successful examples of monastic renewal in the Catholic Church. Strictly speaking they are not a Catholic community for their members come from different Churches, but they are after all in Italy and so most of them are Catholic. I spent three months with them last year and my reaction was that this is post-conciliar Catholicism at (or near) its best. They will not appeal to those people who are scandalised by religious who don’t wear habits all the time or want a return to Tridentine liturgy and ultramontanist theology. But neither are they willing to sacrifice the Gospel to the spirit of the age. They are very clearly rooted in the biblical and patristic tradition, and have invested much in forming people in this. They have a publishing house which both translates works from other languages and publishes books by the brothers and sisters and other Italian authors.
The brothers and sisters of Bose are known in some quarters for their commitment to ecumenism, and particularly for their contacts with the Orthodox Church. An important part of this is the conference on Orthodox spirituality that is held every year in September and they also have contacts with Protestant and Anglican groups. Their approach to ecumenism is clearly one of seeking to reach back to a common tradition and they see the monastic tradition as having a particular role in this regard. Thus they are not into imitating Orthodox liturgy or customs – their liturgy is clearly western and post-conciliar – but are rather interested in discerning the common roots. And this has resulted in a serious concentration on Scripture and the Fathers.
It is a great shame that more of their books are not translated into English. As far as I am aware, the only other book by Brother Enzo that has appeared in English is Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Cistercian Studies Series). For anyone with Italian translation skills, it would be a worthwhile project to make more of them available.