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Romano Guardini on the Essence of Asceticism

The motive for true asceticism does not lie in such a struggle to overcome inordinate urges, but in the necessity of bringing them into proper order. The order is determined by various considerations: the question of health, regard for other persons, and our duties to our vocation and our work. Every day makes new demands and obliges us to keep ourselves in order. And this is asceticism. The word, derived from the Greek "askesis" means practice and exercise, exercise in the proper directing of one's life.

We must also consider the fact that there is a hierarchy of values. For instance, there are everyday values, those that pertain to our physical life; above these there are the values of our vocation and our work; still higher are those of person relations and intellectual activity; and finally those which are attained by our immediate relation to God. We realize these values by means of the powers of our being; but these are limited and we must understand clearly to which tasks we want to turn them. We must choose, and then carry out our choice. This requires exertion and sacrifices and that too is asceticism.

Apart from all this, everyone who knows the tendency of human nature toward self-indulgence also knows how necessary it is to impose upon ourselves voluntary exercises in self-control, such as are not demanded by our immediate purposes. They are necessary so that the will may more easily fulfill the demands of duty when these present themselves. They are necessary also as a way to freedom which consists in being master of oneself, of one's impulses and circumstances.

The physical urges which proceed from the somato-psychic organization of man present themselves so plainly to our consciousness that the mental and spiritual urges can easily be overlooked. But these, as a matter of fact, are more decisive from the point of view of our total community life. The building up of what we call the personality, its preservation in the world, its activity and creativity, is based upon mental and spiritual urges. There is the urge toward recognition and esteem, toward power in all its forms. There is the urge toward social and community life, toward freedom and culture; the urge toward knowledge and artistic creation, etc. All these urges have, as we said, their significance as impulses basic to self-preservation and self-development. But they are also inclined to become excessive, to bring life out of harmony with the lives of others and so to become disturbing or destructive.

Therefore a constant discipline is necessary, a discipline whose principles are determined by ethics and practical philosophy; this discipline is asceticism.