Meditations for Layfolk - The Ascetic Ideal

It is said commonly that there is one set of temptations with which we should never attempt to argue, and these are temptations against purity. So long as they are upon us, we must avoid everything calculated to excite us in any way and turn swiftly to anything else that is likely to call off our attention from the thought that has come into the mind; for the very fact of struggling with ourselves, insisting upon the degrading nature of impure thoughts and all that kind of thing, means really that instead of succeeding in expelling it, we are driving it deeper in. At all costs we must move the mind abruptly away. As soon as we are conscious that some foul imagination is present to us, we should breathe an ejaculatory prayer to our Lord, or our Lady, or our Angel Guardian, and then betake ourselves at once to some hobby or distraction. It is often said that it is when we have nothing to do that these thoughts most disturb us; but their frequency does not depend on that so much as on other conditions of life. But this is certainly true, that it is in moments of idleness that we experience greater difficulty in escaping from them, simply because the very state of idleness prevents us from turning at once to an absorbing topic. Hence the enormous importance of never allowing ourselves moments of idleness or of becoming listless, for then it will be hard to think of anything sufficiently stimulating to take of! our thoughts from the evil thing. People who have not enough to do, or who enter into nothing with any zeal or energy, are just the people who are most likely to be especially bothered. The mind grows tired from want of exercise.

Obviously, then, true asceticism begins with thoughts. Asceticism itself does not signify the mere renouncing of desire, for desire is as much a human need as love; nor has it essentially any connection with a minimum of food or a maximum of contemplation; but it does mean the mastery of self, achieved by the gradual control of the will. It means an eager, watchful spirit, perpetually alert; it means a sensitiveness to sin, a delicacy which turns instinctively from every suggestion of coarseness. Thus is the gateway of the soul for ever through the mind. If this can be kept pure, there can be little fear for actions or words; these follow exactly the lines of dalliance. So I must, even at times when no temptation is about me, be at pains to impress on my heart a great love for chastity, try to look upon it as so supreme and delicate a virtue as to become transparent in the expression of a face, and to hush into silence the evil conversation of others, and by its freshness bring a sense of steadiness and ease to those who are tormented. All this implies meditating on the life of Christ, of His Maiden Mother, and exalting the high atmosphere of the Holy Family. The way of human nature is to repose not on fear, but on love; hence it is foolish to suppose that dread of punishment can normally, or for long, influence the will when opposed by any impulsive passion. The pleasure that is present will seem more attractive than the future pain is repellent. To be pure I must really love purity and learn to appreciate it.

Then it further implies that I must avoid all those occasions which my sad experience tells me have brought these trooping imaginations upon me. People, books, places, pictures, dances, which I have personally found dangerous, I must personally avoid. General rules, anyway, are practically impossible; the whole affair becomes individual for each conscience. When I find myself beset by thronging thoughts of evil, I must put them away from me. The healthier I am in mind, sometimes also in body, the less likely am I to have impure suggestions. A life that is reasonably hard, that allows no mere indulgence to the system, that is eager and alert and disciplined, that exercises its will power by sheer effort of will and makes every endeavour not simply to drift through life, has in it the seeds of true asceticism. The hardier the body, the safer the soul. It was the bracing discipline of the hair shirt, the vigour of the fast and early rising, the fierce austerity of solitude, that were aimed at by the monks; and sin grew rampant in the cloister when ease and convenience became the tests of monastic prosperity. What is true of the monk is true of us all. Hence even athletics have their place in the science of the soul. To many a man the confessor in his whispered advice suggests bodily exercise and out-of-door occupations as means of working off the overcoming humours that else torment and make weary the soul. The influence of matter on spirit is an experienced fact that the race had recognized in Eden; but all this is of no avail unless the thoughts of evil are expelled. When these unclean things appear, let me, without scruple or argument or disturbance, put them from me.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.