The Spectator carried a recent article, ‘Why are modern men obsessed with self-improvement’. It was a summary of the current trend for men to eschew things such as milk, carbs, junk food and beer in attempt to live as the writer described, ‘a more virtuous life’. I thought it an interesting article as it demonstrated the intense human need for asceticism but also the secular view on what the virtues are.
According to the author we are witnessing a new trend as men clamber to purge themselves of the intoxicants that Morden life compels them to consume. Men are grouping together around common objectives, usually related to fitness and diet. This trend is labelled as something new. However, I could not help but think of the parallels with the early desert fathers who took themselves into the desert in search of solitude and silence in their never-ending quest for union with the Triune God.
This desire for self-improvement and ascetism the author thought was the search for virtue. However, I think it is a symptom of the misunderstanding of what the virtuous life is that leads to such conclusion. The virtuous can never be practised in sole reference to oneself or to ascetism. This is a criticism often levelled at Christians. That we equate virtue solely with morality, solely with justice. As a result, we live staid, sterile lives, bereft of joy, love and excitement. Sanctity, seen though this lens is a turgid journey of repression and suppression, as we seek to limit and control the desires that pulsate through our innermost being.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The virtues enable us to touch the face of God, they enable us to enter into holy union, with the infinite, eternal being, who encapsulates all existence. Our ascetism is not an end, ascetism is the means by which we purify our desires not subjugate them. Holiness is not a destruction of our humanity, it is the liberation of it. The virtues are not dry acts of habitual denial, they are the building block of eternity.
Yet, we need asceticism. We desire it. For some reason men particularly need this shared commitment. What does this mean for man then? It means that if he wants to build a community of men, extreme asceticism must be at the centre of the shared communion. The question then becomes, where do we find this and how can we build it?