- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Positive Asceticism, Negative Asceticism

Or, as Noah Millman better puts it, “Running Towards, Not Away.”  [1] That blog post is his comment on my earlier entry about the gay tastemaker Tim Gunn and his confession that he’s spent nearly 30 years as a celibate. Gunn explained that it’s the result of a traumatic break-up, and a desire to avoid contracting HIV. Noah writes:

But third, all of the above having been said, I should like Dreher to reconsider his parting shot. I’m not a Christian, so it’s not really my place to opine on this, so I’ll let Leo Tolstoy [2] make the argument that if you run away from your worldly fears into religious seclusion, you will find yourself alone with precisely what you are running from. The sacrifice of a sexual life might be an easy or a difficult one for a novice to make – and I can see the value of the choice in either case – but I’m pretty sure that, easy or difficult, it should be a sacrifice for something, and that that something is what matters. And that one source of the sexual scandals in the Catholic Church that Dreher is very familiar with was a refusal to recognize the problem with someone choosing a religious life precisely because that life seems to be a refuge from an unintegrated and disturbing aspect of the self.

The “parting shot” to which he refers was my bringing up monasteries as places where celibates live in community, and do good. My remark was meant to draw attention to the fact that there are many people — men and women — who embrace celibacy, and who even form communities for mutual support in living out their vows in a healthy way. Noah is, of course, correct in his observations. People who join the priesthood or the monastery (not all monks are priests) to run away from their sexuality are escaping nothing. This would also be true of a compulsive womanizer who married thinking that the strictures of matrimony would give him the framework he needed to deal with his lust. When I married, I voluntarily surrendered my sexual freedom for the sake of fidelity to my wife. It was a yoke accepted out of love — a gift given, and a gift received. It seems to me that if celibacy is to be a spiritually and emotionally fruitful state, it should ideally be entered into in that way.

Now, from what he’s said about his own choice, Tim Gunn appears to have embraced celibacy out of fear — fear of emotional pain, and fear of disease. While this is not ideal, obviously, I don’t think we’re in a position to condemn Gunn. (Noah agrees, saying, “Personally, I think a model of mental health that says “you can’t be afraid of anything” – as opposed to a model that says, “know yourself, including knowing your fears” – strikes me as significantly over-stringent… .”) Perhaps Gunn knows his own emotional limits. My wife was talking to me the other night about a friend who is struggling with a lot right now, and said that we should be careful not to expect too much of our friend, who ideally ought to be doing this, that, and the other, but who may not be able to do those things because our friend is overwhelmed. It’s a point worth considering. Plus, the fear of contracting HIV is far from unrealistic.

In my rather different case, I chose to live chastely after my conversion not because it was fun, but because it was expected of me — and by that time, I had gotten pretty sick of where following my own will, instead of God’s, had taken me in my life. I didn’t enjoy it one bit. But I did enjoy the effect learning how to discipline my desires was having on me, over time. I really do believe that if not for that ascesis, I would not have had the emotional and spiritual maturity to recognize the treasure standing before me when I met the woman who would become my wife. My point is simply that even though I didn’t choose chastity because it promised a life of butterflies and fluffy bunnies — indeed, I chose it for reasons that are probably a lot closer to Tim Gunn’s than any ideal (because I knew in my heart, and from my experience, that one way or another, the other way meant death) — I saw over time the good reason this ascesis is required. But I started out with only faith that this was for the Good, a good that I could not experience at that point, but that I hoped to one day understand. And one day, I did.

It’s all about the spirit in which ascesis is entered into. Many of us will know a reformed alcoholic who will not allow himself a single drink, for fear that he won’t be able to handle it, and that it will destroy his life. I think we would greatly respect a man like that, even as we might feel sorry for him to a certain degree. At least he knows his personal limits, and is willing to do what is necessary to preserve his own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Perhaps it’s like that with Tim Gunn.

Finally, I would like to say that monasteries can be places where one can escape from oneself, and confront one’s own demons within the context of a loving and supportive community. But that can only work, it seems to me, if one is determined to confront those demons, instead of merely escaping them (as if that were possible), and if one’s community is also actively working with one to confront those demons.

Advertisement
19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Positive Asceticism, Negative Asceticism"

#1 Comment By Matt On February 6, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

“In my rather different case, I chose to live chastely after my conversion not because it was fun, but because it was expected of me — and by that time, I had gotten pretty sick of where following my own will, instead of God’s, had taken me in my life.”

This is personal, and feel free not to answer, but I am curious: at what age did you convert, and at what age did you get married?

Both your and Mr. Millman’s comments re: Tim Gunn (who I was only vaguely aware of as Somebody On TV before today) are great. Much to ponder. Thanks.

#2 Comment By Rod Dreher On February 6, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

25 when I converted; nearly 31 when I married.

#3 Comment By DS On February 6, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

There are a lot of illegal drugs out there that I would like to try. I think many of them would be exciting, mind-expanding, perhaps life-altering, all in a good way.

I’m also a little concerned that they might kill me or make me very sick for a very long time.

So I don’t do illegal drugs, even though I’d really like to. It’s not unlike what Gunn is saying, thought it’s admittedly about something less (seemingly) biologically hard-wired than sex.

Could I abstain from sex? My history suggests I absolutely can’t. Except that I can, sort of:

There are something like six billion people in the world. About half are women, maybe a third of those are between 20 and 50. (I’m in my early 40’s, so I’m eliminating the 18-19’s and the Farmville crowd — nothing personal, ladies.) Of that billion, “the 1%” will be better looking than the other 99%, so that gives me ten million gorgeous women with whom I’d be very much inclined to recline.

Let’s say that one in 100 of them would like to be with me . . . well, maybe 1 in 1000 would like it, but given the global economic crisis, and my U.S. Citizenship and decent income, 1% of “the 1%” would likely stoop to having me as a mate, if only for economic security. That’s 100,000 women I’d be ecstatic to be with, who would at least tolerate me.

Over the past 20 odd years, I’ve been with precisely one of those 100,000 gorgeous women. So I’ve been 99.999% celibate among the 100,000, and 100% celibate among those to whom I’m not married. (Just like Tim Gunn.)

Sorry, my point was supposed to be about avoiding potentially fun drugs for my own good, then I did some math and felt a lot better about what my prospects would be if my wife ever reads this.

#4 Comment By Sam M On February 6, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

DS,

The math is interesting. But it might be interesting if we tried to account for costs other than physical ones. We like to warn people in those physical terms. You’ll OD. You’ll get AIDS. But the fact is the vast majority of people who use sex and drugs for fun don’t OD and don’t get AIDS.

Eventually, kids figure this out. Which makes me nervous.

#5 Comment By MMH On February 6, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

“Many of us will know a reformed alcoholic who will not allow himself a single drink, for fear that he won’t be able to handle it, and that it will destroy his life. I think we would greatly respect a man like that, even as we might feel sorry for him to a certain degree. At least he knows his personal limits, and is willing to do what is necessary to preserve his own spiritual, mental, and physical health. ”

I would feel not pity but respect, even admiration. We’re all limited; we just differ in our limitations. Facing up to them concretely is rare and requires a tremendous strength. No, it’s definitely not pity I’d fee.

#6 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 6, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

I think Thomas Merton says some things about running away versus running toward life in a monastery. I don’t think you can eliminate 100% the running away portion. We are all human beings, and we have all been guilty of running away at some point in life. Indeed, there’s a lot of things we’re probably each running away from at this moment, while avoiding many of things we should run to. It’s St Paul’s classic conundrum.

“15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.c For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

It’s easy to get hung up on the highly visible/high impact things like sex. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more going on below the surface. Long term celibacy is not that difficult a choice compared to the larger lifelong battle against your selfish and self (and others) destructive will.

#7 Comment By Charles Cosimano On February 6, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

If the kid has any brains he already knows that everyone is lying to him so it doesn’t take much doing to figure the rest out. That is why the scare stuff does not work.

#8 Comment By MH – secular misanthropist On February 6, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

I mentioned once before that I am a failed hedonist. I don’t have a problem with the concept, and I suppose it sounds fun. But I am square to the core and ultimately not interested.

So is it asceticism if abstaining from something is not a sacrifice?

An over the top example. The CDC recommends abstaining from eating squirrel brains. I have no problem doing this, but it doesn’t strike me as asceticism, just common sense. But I feel the same way about drugs, gambling, smoking, getting drunk, or sexual vices. It is common sense to avoid things that will wreck your life.

#9 Comment By cp On February 6, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

The paradox that you hint at, Rod, is that the only way we can “escape” (a term I’d personally eschew) the darkness with us is to journey through the darkness within us. And the only way that is possible is within a community of faith that can withstand that journey.

Liberals believe this journey is dependent upon externals; conservatives believe it’s entirely up to the individual.

That’s why Orthodox Christians do not fit neatly in either camp.

#10 Comment By Charles Curtis On February 6, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

Not all monks are priests.. but neither are all priests monks. No. True enough. Not even close.

This is much like the not all Arabs are Muslims, nor all Muslims Arabs gig. The fact that Turks and Persians, Pakistanis, Indonesians (etc.) are not Arabs, and that very many Arabs are not Muslims is central to the popular incomprehension that drives the atrocity that is our foreign policy these days..

So to with the complexity of varieties of religious life, and the Catholic and Orthodox priesthood’s relationship with religious life. That nexus is subtle, rich, important, and widely misunderstood.

The priesthood is not universally celibate. Latin Rite Catholic (“Roman” Catholic) priests are almost all celibate (with a small number of exceptions lately, mostly clerical converts from Anglican or Lutheran traditions) but a relatively small percentage of priests are religious (“religious” meaning living according to a religious rule, usually, but not always in community – most Catholic priests are “secular” priests, who only vow celibacy and promise – not vow – obedience to their bishop). Eastern (& other) Rite Catholic and Orthodox priests are usually married, unless they are religious, usually monastics.

Religious life (celibate life according to a rule, usually of poverty and obedience) is divided (in Catholic terms) into active and contemplative branches. The contemplatives focus on union with God in prayer (like Mary Magdalene) and the actives live a life of prayer while also living active lives in some ministry (like Martha, engaged in education, health care, etc.) – This means that not only are few celibates priests, but that all celibates are not monks. In English, monks are male monastics (both communal/cenobitic and solitary/eremtic/hermitic/anchoritic/hesychast) while female monastics are called nuns. Female active religious are known as simply as sisters. Nuns are also addressed as sister, leaving us with the further complexity: all nuns are called sisters, but not all religious sisters are nuns.

There are also the mendicants, like the Dominicans and Franciscans who are a fusion of the contemplative and active, and who also are a mix of religious brothers (un-ordained religious men) and priests.

I’ve just spent over 10 minutes on this. I’m nuts, obviously. Still, for the sake of the half dozen people who might read this and perhaps profit from it..

#11 Comment By Gian On February 6, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

Rod,
“When I married, I voluntarily surrendered my sexual freedom for the sake of fidelity to my wife”

You did not have any “sexual freedom” to begin with. You are buying into the individualistic assumptions when you use this kind of language,

#12 Comment By Lulu On February 7, 2012 @ 2:35 am

Blah, blah, blah . . . Go, and sin no more.

#13 Comment By Julien Peter Benney On February 7, 2012 @ 3:39 am

Tim Gunn’s story is no different from the lifestyles of many of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Decadents, who were homosexuals who saw in their sinful lifestyle and the problems they may have understood a source of both personal redemption and immense artistic influence. The Decadents and their combination of mysticism and sensuality was an essential influence on the Beat and Hippie generations.

#14 Comment By Floridan On February 7, 2012 @ 7:43 am

Apparently I don’t understand “celibacy as sacrifice,” but since we are delving into the issue, I have a question: does it still count as celibacy if one masterbates, or is the status solely based on avoiding intercourse with others?

#15 Comment By Mr. Patrick On February 7, 2012 @ 10:09 am

Who would have time for such carnal foolishness, between pressing trousers, getting the fall line just right, folding, or better yet, rumpling a pocket square just so, getting the perfect dimple in the perfect knot, choosing whether to try to match patterns, or just going with 3 solids and one pattern, shining up the brogues, brushing the suedes to matte…did I mention color coordination??

I can easily see how a couple of decades could just slip by, in maintaining just the simplest routines of proper wardrobe maintenance. To look good, you must be willing to sacrifice all other relationships to the most important one, that with your tailor.

#16 Comment By David J. White On February 7, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

The contemplatives focus on union with God in prayer (like Mary Magdalene) and the actives live a life of prayer while also living active lives in some ministry (like Martha, engaged in education, health care, etc.)

Mary the sister of Martha and Mary Magdalene were most likely not the same person, despite the persistent conflation of the two over the centuries.

#17 Comment By Susan D. On February 7, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

Floridian, all non-marital sex acts are not celebate. That includes masturbation.

#18 Comment By JonF On February 7, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

Susan D,

The word you are looking for is “non-chaste”, not non-celibacy. “Celibacy” is not so much about sex as it is about marriage (and marriage-lite forms of cohabitation). A vow of celibacy is a vow not to marry, or pair off with another person; it is a vow to live single and (emotionally) solitary, and if undertaken for religious reasons (in the Christian tradition) it is an affirmation that one is willing to become the especial beloved of God.

I am not trying to pick on Susan, or anyone in particular with the following observation, but the focus on sex and sex alone in this discussion (and discussion like it) strikes me as evidence of a terribly unhealthy view of sex, love and all that is human about those things– and an error of very long-standing in our civilization. Perhaps it is part of the long Gnostic hangover Christianity has suffered from its early days.

#19 Comment By Howard On February 9, 2018 @ 7:54 pm

Insterestingly enough, Colossians says there are certain “spiritual disciplines” that are useless and a waste of time. I assume there are others that aren’t. I’ve never found a really good writer, not even Dallas Willard, to explain this adequately.