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The Reluctant Ascetic

As I discussed in my previous post, Coffee Conversation for Three, the writer Flannery O’Connor prayed for God to grant her the ability and the circumstances to write well. Either she had a premonition of her future lupus diagnosis or God answered her prayer or maybe both.  Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissue. It causes widespread inflammation and pain. Her chronic condition limited her exposure to outward distractions. Her solitude gave rise to a disciplined and productive writing routine. So, be careful what you pray for.

In her letters, O’Connor expressed a special interest in the early Christian desert communities. In those solitary places, individuals attempted to imitate Christ by rejecting the material ambitions and rewards of this world. They believed that asceticism brought them closer to God. Scattered throughout Judea, Egypt and Sinai, several of these communities evolved into large monasteries. St. Catherine’s Monastery formed in the sixth century, was thought to have attended to over 600 monks. The desert communities that fascinated O’Connor formed the foundation and structure of the Christian monastic communities that continue to exist today.

As I was growing up in rural South Carolina, I did not encounter any monks. No surprise there since monks are associated with the Roman Catholic Church and there just aren’t that many Catholics in my part of the state. The exception being the Catholic sponsored hospital in nearby Greenville. It was there that I met my first nun when I was seven years old. Dressed in black, she came into my room to pray as I awaited a much-needed tonsillectomy. She made a positive impression on me, even more than the ice cream that came around after the surgery. 

Later I learned that she was a member of the Order of Saint Clare and that they had a monastery near the hospital. My apologies if my experience runs counter to those of you with stories of mean nuns at Catholic schools, but don’t worry. I have enough stories about mean Baptists at Protestant schools to match you humiliation for humiliation, but that’s a subject for another day.

Since that first encounter, I have met many other Christian religious types – more nuns, priests, bishops, deacons, reverends, pastors, elders, preachers, missionaries, apostles, evangelists, and healers than I can shake a stick at. Most sincere, some not but among those many who count themselves as religious, I cannot ever remember meeting a monk. 

Maybe it has to do with proximity. I don’t suppose monks get out that much. The chances of encountering one would be very low unless there was a monastery nearby. Or maybe it as to do with the reality of ascetism that has put modern Christians off from pursuing . . . excuse me . . . from being called to that particular religious vocation. Selling asceticism in a material world has few buyers, especially in the latest go-and-grow version of the New South that has bought its way into my corner of South Carolina. 

While claiming Christ still makes good business and political sense in the New South, imitating him, especially through asceticism, would be bad for business. If all the New Southerners who claim to be Christian denied themselves material goods for any length of time, they would collapse the American economy. 

Adding to the hypocrisy, the whole notion of prosperity theology – the belief that wealth and good health is God’s plan for each of us who just have enough faith directly contradicts the message of Christ. Didn’t he say that his followers should deny themselves and take up their crosses? And don’t forget that all his original twelve disciples (save one) were executed for spreading the Gospel. They didn’t build fishing empires or medical practices and then retire to a gated community on the shores of the Mediterranean . . . or Hilton Head Island. Of course, I am a Christian and have been homogenized into the same New South middle class that I criticize, but at least I will admit that the hypocrisy exists.

The early monastics believed that through asceticism they could achieve apatheia (a state of equanimity undisturbed by passion) and eventually ataraxia (a state of equanimity characterized by a sustained freedom from anxiety) by living in silent solitude, performing manual labor, fasting, limiting sleep, constant praying, practicing obedience, and exhibiting inward humility. 

As her lupus progressed, O’Connor recognized the similarities between her symptoms and the asceticism practiced by those early Christians. Her lupus became her desert community. As I grow older, I find that Parkinson’s has become mine. 

Comparable to the traits of asceticism, Parkinson’s brings with it speech problems, social isolation, dietary restrictions, insomnia, pain, strict obedience to a drug schedule along with an increasing number of small personal humiliations – all made worse by an apathy that occurs from low dopamine production. An apathy that sits heavily on my shoulders but doesn’t have the energy to even whisper “give up.” An apathy that unnecessarily robs me of life affirming events. An apathy that is insidious and pervasive, making it the most dangerous of Parkinson’s symptoms.

To combat apathy, do I now become a reluctant ascetic? Maybe those early Christians were on to something or maybe they all suffered from low dopamine. We shall see.

Coming next . . . Turning Apathy into Apatheia

Checkout this posting on Substack