The Ascetic Christian
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
—St. Luke 9:23
The eleventh-century theologian Nicetas Stethatos taught that there are three different types of natures in mankind. The first lives for himself, even if it harms others. The second desires good for others and for himself. The third lives to please God, even at the expense of harming himself. The first man he considered to be base. The second he called the natural man. The third, a spiritual man.
Unfortunately, the spiritual person as so defined is not the role model we see in most of Christendom. We are lead to believe that asceticism—real self-denial—is for the radical few (Mother Teresa being the most obvious example of this) and is by no means required. We live in a culture that allows even people of humble means to be self-indulgent. Aside from the toys of the well-off (such as a Mercedes Benz and Rolex watches), just consider the popularity of Häagen Dazs ice cream, gourmet coffees, and expensive gym shoes. Ours is a culture where even the poor can sometimes live a “me first” life.
The human desire to be always happy, to be comfortable, and to be perpetually entertained runs counter to the very idea of denying yourself and taking up the cross. This, of course, is the basis of an ascetical life—to deny yourself luxuries and to embrace spiritual disciplines in order to take away everything that might distract you from being Christ-like.
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Thomas S. Buchanan is the George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He has studied at UCSD, Northwestern University, and MIT, and has held visiting professorships at the University of Western Australia and the University of Aix-Marseille. He has served as department chairman, deputy dean, and institute director, president of the American Society of Biomechanics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics. He is on the Board of Trustees of Saint Katherine College, the editorial board of Touchstone, and the board of The Fellowship of St. James.
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