When we think of holiness we often think of great ascetics, men and women whose acts of self-denial may seem – at first blush – bizarre. In a city as comfortable as our DC, is daily holiness possible? Is great asceticism possible? The answer is “yes.” More surprising is what the living of daily asceticism can actually look like.
Catholics believe that everyone is called to holiness by the imitation of Christ in ways particular to each individual’s life. The common denominator in so infinitely complex a formula of holiness is self-gift for the sake of others. As Christ offers up his whole self to the Father on the Cross asking that we might be forgiven our sins, we too offer ourselves. That’s what asceticism (from the Greek askesis) means: to do a physical act in pursuit of a spiritual result. Here we discover the wide reach of personal holiness.
Sometimes we offer ourselves through very overt acts of self-denial… a woman pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming truck, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit for example. Other acts are more implicit: the man who silently gives up alcohol asking God to give graces to his family… Christ himself holds up fasting prayer and almsgiving as the three classical forms of self-gift in daily life. He also warns that we should be cheerful givers How does that work?? This is where love comes into the picture. When we love the other we’re serving, that’s when “denial” becomes “gift.” And what can be more joyous than giving someone a gift?!?!
Consider for a minute Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. An ale-swilling party animal, to be sure, but he loved everyone of his friends and offered himself to them completely…literally to the point of passing out! A little foolish? Sure. Falstaff lacked in discipline, but generations of readers have fallen in love with this amiable rogue because in his heart he was a giver. If we think of Falstaff as one extreme of self-gift, and say… Blessed Mother Theresa as the other (a woman of exceptional discipline and overt self-denial)… we see that there really is a huge range of holiness out there in which each of us can find our niche.
One saint, a saint of the city who was especially adept at helping others find their own joyous and beautiful asceticism is St. Philip Neri. I like to think of him as an “aesthetic ascetic.” Philip lived in sixteenth century Rome and preached a matrix of virtues. He loved city-folk; never leaving Rome after his arrival there. He taught that acts of obedience and perseverance in love yield joy… as joy consumes the soul it leads us to be truly free, which disposes us to contemplate God’s presence. Contemplating God’s presence is the definition of heaven… not a bad goal. Philip created an environment where this process could unfold and called it the Oratory. What does this have to do with Washington? Well, as it turns out an oratory is in formation at one of our downtown parishes, St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park. If you’re a denizen of DC and interested in seeking personal holiness, you might check it out and see how you’re being called to be a aesthetic ascetic for the 21st century.