By Fr. Sean McDermott and Fr. Mark Perkins
Have you noticed the rise of intense, adrenaline-pumping, pain-inducing, sweat-drenched, adventure races that people pay to endure? The modern marathon has been around for over a century, but participation has exploded recently, with nearly 50% growth in worldwide participants in roughly the past decade. Triathlons have been around for over forty years — but their popularity exploded in the 21st century. More recently, the growth of participation in triathlons has slowed, but only because of the proliferation of other endurance races — your Tough Mudders and Spartan Races and the like. People spend a great deal of money and time to train and race in these events. The extreme challenge and physical suffering, it seems, promises a sense of accomplishment and meaning.
We are not cut out for the extreme races — we tip our hat to those of you who are. Though skeptical of the endurance-sports industry, we are not critical of the races themselves, nor of participating in them. We have even dabbled (with mediocre results) in tamer incarnations of endurance athletics (a sprint triathlon here, a bicycle century there), but their existence and popularity indicates a cultural movement towards something other than general physical health and fitness. It speaks to a growing desire for bodily mastery and for the adventure of self-denial. These races are the extreme physical manifestation of modern asceticism. So long as they are pursued with temperance and prudence, endurance sports can be salutary or, at worst, generally harmless. But when this same attitude — this same adrenaline rush towards the extreme — begins to take root within the practices of the Church, they distort the Christian wisdom of asceticism.
In the last few years, we have seen the emergence of programs of extreme asceticism for Christians
— something like an Ironman approach to spiritual discipline. These usually take place around or during Lent and are ways for Christians to really dedicate their lives and habits to Christ. What has been amazing to us, however, is how these programs seem to proliferate ecumenically — among Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, in Anglican and nondenominational churches. I (Fr. Sean) remember visiting a friend in Chicago over an Easter break in college. As we got ready to attend the Easter Vigil service, he introduced me to his buddies, Sam and Paul. They were very excited because they had only eaten bread and butter for the last 45 days as their Lenten discipline. Wow, I thought, they even look like stale bread and pale butter!
That many in our age seek greater adventure and physical self-denial should be no surprise. Most of us in the Western world enjoy levels of comfort unprecedented in human history. Most of those reading this post enjoy luxuries that outstrip the most lavish palaces in the world a hundred years ago. Consider: if the temperature of water in my shower is not exactly what I want it to be, all I have to do is shift the handle, and now I can enjoy the perfect shower. Take that Alexander the Great!
As a result, some of us naturally seek what Theodore Roosevelt termed “the strenuous life.” We seek challenges that snap us out of our cultural decadence. In and of itself, this may be a healthy impulse. But when this passion for adventure infiltrates the Church and her practices and liturgies, several problems emerge.
A Well-Branded Fast
Programs of extreme asceticism generally birth para-church organizations that may seek their own ends — more money, more participants, or just general popularity. When we first heard of Exodus 90, we were quite intrigued because it seeks to free people from bad habits through three pillars of asceticism, prayer, and fraternity. All of these are good! However, the program itself disregards the actual seasons of the Church. If your approach to fasting disregards feast days, this may be a sign that your motives are skewed — that your purposes in fasting are not the Church’s purposes. Instead of following the ascetic principles of Lent, Exodus 90 makes you start well before Gesimatide. You can even do it during the Christmas season! Just to make sure that you really live into these Christian practices, you can now purchase branded t-shirts, journals, mugs, and socks (yes, socks).
Although we wish to celebrate the good aspects of this program — the baby versus the bathwater and such — we must say that elements of Exodus 90 seem less about counter-culturally expressing of our membership in God’s heavenly kingdom and more about one more piece of consumerist identity-building through well-branded products. While not all programs have the same kinds of icky monetization, it is our admittedly anecdotal experience that many who engage in unusual or extreme Lenten practices tend to broadcast their fasting to the world. The danger is that our Lent, rather than drawing us closer to Jesus, becomes just one more avenue of postmodern identity-building (“he’s the kind of guy who…”). And that, at the very least, flagrantly violates our Lord’s admonitions about fasting.
The Misuse of Scripture
Extreme Lenten practices also run the risk of misappropriating and misapplying the teachings of the Church. All of the epistle texts in Gesimatide are taken from St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The church at Corinth was overflowing with spiritual gifts. In fact, these Corinthian folks were so “super-spiritual” that they did not think the body mattered at all. In Corinth this dualistic denigration of the body led to antinomian hedonism — if the body doesn’t matter, they supposed, then there’s no reason not to indulge every appetite! Hence, in the epistle text for Septuagesima (I Cor. 9:24f), St. Paul affirms the value of bodily discipline. As this passage may be susceptible to the kind of misinterpretation against which we are arguing, we will unpack it at some length.
According to St. Paul, we must “run” like an athlete who “striveth for the mastery” and consequently “is temperate in all things.” St. Paul does “not run aimlessly” nor “box as one beating the air” (ESV) but with purpose and great intensity! “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” This rendering rather softens the language. St. Paul literally says something closer to, “I pummel my body and make it a slave.” Of course, this sounds like an endorsement of precisely the kind of extremism we are criticizing.
(Note to hucksters: there is a clear opening for a Christian-themed obstacle race. [The Corinthian Crucible? The St. Paul Crawl?] While crawling through the valley of the shadow of death [mud pit], you would practice swordplay [reciting Bible verses while dragging along an actual medieval broadsword]. For every mistake, you would do a heaven-seeker [pull-up] or temple-builder [burpee]. First-place finishers go to heaven [the award podium]; everyone else goes to hell [McDonald’s].)
Obviously, some words of caution are in order. Note that the governing metaphor is athletic training. Good athletes neither hate nor harm their bodies — they care for their bodies with great attentiveness. The point, then, is not self-flagellation or masochistic practices but, rather, intense training in order to achieve peak performance. The outcome St. Paul exhorts is holiness. This does not make St. Paul’s advice noncorporeal; bodily discipline is precisely what he has in mind — but for the end of holiness, not for athletic performance as such. (As an aside, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the extreme asceticism practiced by some sainted monastics — under careful spiritual direction — is universally applicable in the Church.)
Additionally, one could easily be misled into reading St. Paul individualistically — as though advocating some kind of cutthroat, winner-take-all spiritual competition. After all, only one of all the runners “receiveth the prize”! However, this is a result of the governing metaphor — so far as we know, team sports did not exist in the Roman world, and so the athletic imagery available to St. Paul could only derive from individual competition. The point is the intensity of effort expended by athletes in pursuit of their “corruptible crown” (which at the Corinthian Games was sometimes made of wilted celery!) — a stark contrast with the Corinthians, who have before them an “incorruptible” crown of unspeakable glory yet put forth hardly any effort at all! Furthermore, St. Paul’s advice is situated within a larger section of First Corinthians specifically describing a community bound together by love. Whatever we take him to mean, then, it must be understood as contributing to the health of the sacramental organism of which we are members, the Body of Christ.
The Exodus 90 program rightly emphasizes “fraternity,” but it is our experience that many Lenten disciplines — especially but not only among evangelicals — tend towards individualism and even eccentricity. (Someone I [Fr. Mark] know, who will go unnamed, once thought about smoking one cigarette a day as a means of contemplating mortality. Suffice it to say, this is a dumb idea that a good priest would shoot down.) The Church’s Lenten disciplines, by contrast, are corporate and communal in nature and always intended to promote charity.
Finally, we must read St. Paul’s advice in light of the particular Corinthian indifference to bodily discipline and within the context of St. Paul’s larger theology of the body, which is robustly positive. Our body is God’s good creation, but, wounded by sin as it is, it must be disciplined. In most cases, denigration of the body leads not to Corinthian indulgence but rather to severe and unhealthy forms of asceticism. St. Paul’s advice would no doubt be quite different in those contexts!
Self-Help Rather than Spiritual Formation
The third problem with these extreme approaches is that they risk changing the seasons of the Church into self-help rallies, inherently placing too much emphasis on one’s self and not on God. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the ancillary benefits of fasting and self-denial — better health, for instance, and greater bodily discipline in general. But the purpose of Lenten fasting is not to lose weight, nor is it about greater self-control as an end unto itself. Rather, it is about growing closer to Jesus — greater self-control, greater bodily discipline must be put in service of the spiritual pursuit of God and godliness. If they aren’t making you holier — don’t do them! If, for instance, fasting on Sunday mornings makes you a lousy spouse or an insufferable parent, you must drop the fast. Of course, the long-term solution is not to skip fasts but rather learn how to fast well. There are seasons and circumstances which will inhibit fasting, but if you can never skip a meal without becoming a monster, something is amiss!
Learning how to fast well is an important part of our spiritual growth. We have already posted a couple of things on fasting here, but here we wanted to note a few more things about recent trends we have seen. First, within Christian tradition it is clear that we fast from good things. We give up certain types of food or eat smaller meals not because food is a bad thing, but exactly because it is a good thing. The traditional fast from meat and restricting the amount of food you eat honors the food itself, recognizing its vital role in our life. Giving up a little of such an important part of life goes a long way in increasing our self-control and deepening our prayer life.
Second, fasting focuses on the positive, not the negative. It is an all too common trope that people use Lent to give up on vices that they should never take up again. The impulse is wonderful, of course, because it is a flight from sin, and in some way we should all ‘fast from sin.’ However, the traditional fast within the Church does not focus our attention on sin itself. We would argue that that practice only increases one’s obsession with the sin! Fasting, on the other hand, turns our attention from sin and focuses our attention on the positive aspects of our spiritual life such as self-control and prayer. Through those, of course, we gain control over sin through an ever deepening repentance.
Third, a good fast teaches us about good feasting. When we give up meat and eat smaller meals, we grow in appreciation of those things, and we can enjoy them at a deeper level during feasts. In fact, a good feast can help you fight sin if you are able to understand the great beauty that abounds in feasting.
So take this Lent easy! Fast as the Body fasts, and feast as the Body feasts! And may you ever grow in love towards God and neighbor.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.