One of the things we do every Lent is to find something that we like and then deny ourselves this pleasure as a sign (principally to ourselves) of the importance that God has in our lives. So we deny ourselves the chocolate that we love so that we can show ourselves (not God since God knows us better than we know ourselves!) what is more important in our lives: our own pleasure or God.
But our culture has changed in so many ways that we no longer see why we would do such a thing simply for God. It is different if we do it for our health and self-betterment. It is amazing what people who have not the foggiest understanding of God or religion deny themselves for earthly benefits of health or as a preparation for tough challenges, such as marathons. There is a very big difference between fasting and dieting, though the results may be similar. Fasting is a spiritual discipline to prepare and sustain a prayerfulness by subjugating our selfish desires to the overall worship of God. Dieting is to make us healthier and to shed a few useless pounds. The effects may be similar, and one can have both a spiritual attitude of fasting but also desire the loss of weight for health, but always in that order and with the overriding desire to please God.
The reality is that people will jog miles on a daily basis so as to look good and to be healthy. Of course, this is a good thing to do in itself, but it is essentially self-centered. It has nothing to do with the spiritual practice of asceticism. In this way of seeing things spiritually, we do the good thing by denying ourselves so that we can achieve the higher reality of making God truly the first in our lives.
I remember what a retreat master said to us at a very influential retreat at the Seminary. He said that an Ascetic can get more pleasure out of one martini than a drunkard can after imbibing a whole barrel of martinis!
The Ascetical method of spiritual development has broad support in every major religion on the earth. I remember going for a Zen Retreat once in my youth. While it is important to understand that Buddhism is a different kind of philosophy, many of whose main points do not agree with Catholic theology, it has many agreements as well. I was surprised how much more demanding the Zen retreat was than western Catholic retreats. It was led by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Robert Kennedy, whom we had here at our Parish as a lecturer. Motionless meditation for over 8 hours each day, fasting, vegetarian diet, not uttering a single word for 7 days, watching every breath and every thought: these are a taste of the asceticism that prevailed. I have not even mentioned the staff person with the stick that hit you when you looked like you were going to sleep!
Ordinarily, things just come and go out of our consciousness. Asceticism is an attempt to reorder our priorities and hold ourselves accountable for all the mental choices we make. While it is by its very nature difficult, it can open up new possibilities to assert our spiritual natures in a more definitive way.
We all have a comfort zone. Sometimes, we don’t even know that we are in it. Asceticism, the making of sacrifices to God, invites us out of those zones that are so familiar. In the making of sacrifices, the disciplining of our natures, the resetting of our priorities, is a sign of spiritual and psychological growth.
This is not easily done. This is why we have the yearly season of Lent. We need times to circle back and reassess our stance toward God. We all slip over time. The Ascetical season of Lent gives us a yearly opportunity to reorder things: to throw out what leads us away from God and to begin to do again that which brings us into a deeper relationship with the Almighty.
It is not easy to say no to our desires for sense satisfaction, but it is essential for growth in the spiritual life.