Asceticism — The Cure for Consumerism

A report from Wells Fargo Securities shows a “record drop” in consumer credit this summer. “Despite the cash-for-clunkers program starting in the last week of July, nonrevolving credit fell at a staggering 11.7 percent annualized pace,” analyst Yasmine Kamaruddin wrote. Indeed, much of the decline was attributed to a spike in charge offs, which points to the ongoing, widespread distress in economic life.

But here’s the thing, and it’s very simple. The reason that major sectors of the economy such as autos and housing have suffered historic declines — indeed in some cases been on the verge of collapse — is that consumers suddenly stopped buying what companies were selling. Certainly, much of this pull back can be explained by growing joblessness and fear about the future. But I suspect that there’s also a cultural shift going on, which may continue long after the economy bounces back. In the future, we may see less consumption, especially for things like the McMansions and oversized SUVs, because people are learning about what they really need. Now in fact, you may have a large family and good reason to live in a large house. Or you may be a rancher or a tradesman have a perfectly suitable need for a large truck. But too much of what the American consumer was buying in recent years was inexplicably “super sized.” So, if we are indeed undergoing a shift in priorities, learning to live within or below our means, that can only be a good thing in the long run.

This cultural shift is in the hands of consumers and is vastly more powerful than if “nanny state” government officials had attempted to manage it from the top down through legal mechanisms such as luxury taxes or excise taxes, which often have a moral rationale. Whether you agree on the moral justification or not. So, why not a “sin tax” on soda pop, as President Obama is suggesting.

At any rate, the people who are running government in Washington right now aren’t the sort of tutors we need for learning how to live within our means.

The Church has a role here. By teaching us that asceticism can be practiced not just on a mountain top, but in every day life, we can learn shed those material things that threaten to enslave us. And we do this freely and powerfully — without demonizing and scapegoating abstract impersonal forces like “the market” or “globalization” as the sources of materialism.

A good exposition of the power of every day ascetism is found in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s 2008 book, Encountering the Mystery, in the chapter on “The Way of Ascesis.”

When we think of ascetism or discipline, we imagine such things as fasting, vigils, and rigorous practices. In the words of Abba Isaac the Syrian (ca. 700): “No one ascends to heaven with comfort.” There can be no ascent without ascesis. That is indeed part of what is involved; but it is not the whole story. Ascesis involves a display of what in The Philokalia and other classics of the Orthodox spiritual life is called frugality or self-restraint (enkrateia). We are to exercise a form of voluntary self-limitation in order to overcome self-sufficiency in our lifestyle, making the crucial distinction between what we want and we we in fact need.

Only through self-denial, through a willingness to forgo and say “no” or “enough,” will we be able to rediscover what it means to be truly human. Ultimately, the spirit of ascesis is less a judgment on the material goods of the world than a way of liberation from the stress and anguish that result from the desire to “have more.” It is the key to freedom from the gridlock of consumerism (cf. 1 Tim. 6:9-10)


  1. George Patsourakos :

    Unfortunately, Americans have been conditioned to buy “the biggest and the best” — even if they do not need something.

    There is a hidden agenda in this attitude: The belief that having more and better material goods than your friends and neighbors will result in being respected more. In fact, this attitude has had a significant impact on our current economic slump.

    Only by self-denial, through a willingness to forgo these mega material purchases, will we free ourselves from the stress and anguish that result from our mania to want more.

  2. Authentic asceticism is essential to the flourishing of humanity. However, when I look throughout the Church sometimes I see a “asceticism for you but not for me” attitude.

    Lets consider the Archons and their upcoming gala at the Waldorf Astoria ( Given the state of the Economy, society, as well as considering what asceticism is… is it proper to have such an event honoring the successor of St. Andrew? I would argue such events undermine asceticism in the Church.

    Why not downscale this event and make it more ascetic? Why not a service oriented approach? Archons should be ascetic as well and the money used at the Waldorf can be put to good use evangelizing America.

  3. Michael Bauman :

    There is a perverse message that is conveyed to laity–only the monks and the true ascetics can be saved, so you might as well make money to give to the Church. If you want to play at asceticism, that’s OK, but don’t really expect anything from it. Especially since ‘everybody knows’ Americans are just too soft and barbarian to really want the Church anyway. Asceticism is certainly not for the bishops as they just have too many responsibilities. Banquets take the place of pastoral visits–so most look on their bishops as irrelevant. Any bishop worth his salt would refuse such fetes and any parish of whom they were demanded would decline the vist.

    Both the ‘worldly’ jurisdictions and the ‘rigorous’ one’s seem to put out the same message since most of the rigor consists of legalistic triumphalism.

    Marriage is held up as the highest ideal, but only in the abstract, ‘spiritual’ sense. Real flesh and blood marriage is often denigrated as a lesser choice made because one is weak.

    Love is forgotten, humility is forgotten, repentance is forgotten. Sharing the Eucharist assembled together with our bishop is fogotten.

    The more I am subjected to such nonesense, the more I become convinced that monasticism ought to be taught for what it is–a specific calling within the Church for a few. Being a spouse and a parent is just as valid a calling-one that is available to far more people. Thus the male-female bond and synergy which God reveals in Genesis as normative and necessary to complete our mission on this earth could be given the support it deserves.

    If Pat. Bartholomew would concentrate on teaching the type of ascesis he outlines in his 2008 book rather than going overboard for the looney left ideas, we’d all be better off.

  4. Michael

    You are 100% right. Today, genuine healthy Christian Marriage is more ascetic than any monastery.

  5. I have noted many times that two opposite paths are available to us: asceticism and consumption. Consumption – or rather mis-consumption, appetite-driven consumption – began in the garden. Through the Spirit of discipline we learn to re-orient our lives and our energies so they are centered on God rather than our appetites. (Of course, as creatures we still need to consume – we just need to learn how to consume rightly.)

    That said, asceticism is always and only a means to some other end. This is evident in it’s literal meaning: “training.” It can be seen in every part of life. EVERY truly successful person is “ascetic” in some way: the athlete, the entrepreneur, the physician, the attorney, the performer, the soldier – all restructure their lives and efforts based on their specific goals. It is their desire to realize that goal that motivates them to pay the price of discipline. (How many times have we heard someone’s failure ascribed to the fact that “they didn’t want it enough to pay the cost”?) Thus, while discipline is an essential tool, it is not a sufficient one. The key, then, is the goal that motivates the effort. (As I often heard growing up: there’s more to picking peas than bending over.)

    As Christians, our goal is communion with God and His creation. IF the folks in the pews have not had their hearts inflamed with the love of God, they won’t get very far. Asceticism might prepare the ground, but without the love of God planted firmly in our hearts, it will ultimately be fruitless.

    So many succumb to the lure of consumption because they are desperately trying to fill the God-shaped void at the center of their lives. This is the tragedy of sin that we all share; it leaves us starving for Life. . . and deep down, we all know it. Excessive consumption is easy to condemn, but it is the symptom of an empty heart; asceticism is an essential part of the solution — but only for the heart that desires the love of God above all else.
    To paraphrase St. Seraphim, if we want to see our part of the world changed, we will need to embody and express this love. My sense is that it would be helpful to hear and see a lot more of this from the pulpit – and in the pew. Only after we have found the pearl of great price – the love of God in Christ – will we sell everything else. Only in so far as it serves the love of God will asceticism prove helpful and it’s true value be realized.

  6. George Michalopulos :

    Andrew, I’ve attended two clergy-laity congresses and I know of what you speak. I often thought instead of gala dinners with entertainment, why don’t all the attendees –that’s bishops, priests, and laymen, everybody–go to the homeless shelters and soup kitchens and help ladle out food or make beds?

    This isn’t so fanciful. How can it be done? First of all, when you first register, there should be a box to fill out: where would you like to serve? a. Main Street Mission, b. Salvation Army, c. St John’s Soup Kitchen, d. Madonna House, e. battered women’s shelter, etc.

    When you get to the hotel, you’ll be given directions to where to go and the time you’ll be there. Maybe after that, the next day for instance, everybody could get together for the banquet and talk about their experiences.

  7. George Michalopulos :

    P.S. I forgot to mention, John, I like what you wrote and especially your inclusion from Patriarch Bartholomew’s book. His words in this matter are profound and true.

  8. While I have no problem with the use of credit for capital items, using it for consumption is another story. As Christians we are to live below our means – not just for ascetical purposes, though that is certainly an important reason. We also can not tithe, support worthy causes or give to the needy if we live up to or beyond our means.

  9. George: Thanks very much.

    Chrys: Many of us who come from immigrant families recall that our grandparents, especially, were credit averse. They paid cash whenever they could and lived frugally. And they built many churches.

  10. Just to add to the ascetic aspect of marriage (and yes, it is ascetic):

    I recall a monk from St. Tikhon’s (?) who wrote a ridiculous article on marriage, where he stated “aside from the marriage service itself, there is no praise for marriage in the Church’s liturgies, wheras monasticism is praised constantly.”

    yes, I recall distinctly praising Christ at the Resurrection as a “monk coming out of his monastic cell”!

  11. George Michalopulos :

    Isa, I agree that marriage is an ascetic struggle. It is in fact the only sacrament of the Church in which two people are to help each other get to heaven. Every other mystery is singular –baptism, confession, communion, etc.

  12. Jefferson and Franklin advocated thrift as a means of procuring wealth and accumulating capital or property so that America could become progressively independent of Europe through entrepreneurship. Hamilton wanted to establish state controlled banks to finance wars, public works, and foreign trade. Jefferson thought of this as selling the country back to the British.

    WWII got America out of the Great Depression. But after the war politicians believed that consumerism, as distinct from pre-war American ethical capitalism, would continue the prosperity recovered during the war. Half a century latter Americans joke about their “patriotic duty” to go shopping.

    Today, as John Couretas writes, in the economic crisis Americans are recovering an appreciation of thrift and saving. They are saving whatever extra money comes their way rather that buying things with it in order to “stimulate the economy.”

    Some politicians don’t want people to save money because saving money does not “stimulate the economy.” As people save more and go into debt less they will acquire more entrepreneurship and personal ownership and thus independence. Banks and other social institutions that rely on government restriction of entrepreneurship and unchecked debt based consumption will go into financial decline. But local economies will thrive.

    What should we do about politicians who believe that it is healthy for governments to go into debt, who don’t see it as a liability? How can our national debt be paid off?

  13. Marraige is inherently a very comprehensive ascetic discipline. Those who do not recognize this are setting themselves up for frustration and failure.
    To form a successful marriage, your life, energy, time and attention must be re-structured – first around God, then your spouse. Only in this way can two sinners grow together in truth and love.

    Unlike any other relationship, you have the privilege of being permanently bound to someone who knows all of your faults and limitations (and will usually tell you about them) yet has a vested interest in the success of the relationship. Of course, you must also learn compassion, forgiveness and surrender as you live with her faults and limitations. It succeeds only so far as you are willing to learn to love – which is possible only as long as you are willing to carry the cross.

    (While Bishops face very difficult political challenges, I have often thought they would benefit from having such honest feedback. It would probably focus more than a few sermons and cut short a couple of bad ideas.)

    One a personal note, it is marriage more than anything else that taught me how deeply cruciform love is. In fact, it was my experience of marriage that revealed me to myself and inspired our journey to the Orthodox faith.

  14. Btw, I have noticed that every nun I have heard speak of marriage showed that she “got it.” Very few monks I have heard do. Father Roman Braga of Dormition Monastery is one of the few that does “get it.”

  15. Michael B writes: “Being a spouse and a parent is just as valid a calling-one that is available to far more people.”

    The Catholic Church seems to be particularly afflicted with this notion of monasticism being a “higher calling”. It’s funny, because I know more than a few married people who’d consider joining a monastery a welcome flight from their marital and parental responsibilities.

    This is why I have a tendency to look some of the Pauline epistles with a bit of suspicion in terms of what is God and how much is distinctly Paul. On the one hand, he did extol marriage, but on the other, he apparently considered it a lesser option for the “weak” and urged his followers to instead be as he was (single and celibate). Perhaps these attitudes are what have influenced the notion among some RCC and Orthodox that marriage is a sort of concession to the weakness of worldly people.

  16. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Isa, yes, I meant to post exactly the same point. Very few non-married men, monks included, have a clue when it comes to marriage. I know of only a few whom I would trust concerning marital advice. And yes, nuns, seem to get it more. The monk you quoted above clearly does not. And, as every married man knows, you didn’t know that you didn’t get it until you have been married a while. Women seem to intuitively grasp this about men, however.

  17. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Note 15. Doesn’t ring true for me James because marriage is within the order of creation. The first union was a marriage — Adam and Eve. St. Paul’s point seems to be a practical one, and probably true. However, valuing monasticism over married life seems to me to be reading something into the text that is not there. Then there is the other problem that even the monk who eschews marriage still needed a mom and dad to even exist.

  18. Male monastics don’t get it for the same reason that Fr. Hans noted that single and newly-married men don’t get it. (Well said, by the way; a very apt way to express my own experience.) It took me more than a couple of years AFTER marriage to “get it.” (God bless my wife.) Interestingly, once you do get it, you begin realize the incredible depth of that vocation. There are times one can sense the presence of God at the bottom of it.
    This issue obviously transcends time and culture, since it is present in quite a few monastic writings. I am delighted, however, to see a distinct change in some reason writings. Many recent Elders seem to have understood.
    Popular culture certainly does NOT get it and presents most married men as objects of ridicule (except, of course, for one or two progressive ones). It would be helpful in the formation of young men to have a more widely recognized model of a mature family man in popular culture; exalting maturity over self-indulgent infantilism would go a long way to correcting a destructive and unfortunately widespread trend. (I’m not holding my breath.)

  19. George Michalopulos :

    Let us not forget that marriage was the first sacrament and that it was instituted by God Himself.

  20. Before we get too far afield from the original thesis (Ascesis as a cure for consumerism), a couple of comments. Patriarch Bartholomew’s description of ascesis and its role vis a vis consumerism is quite right. However, ascesis doesn’t fall from the sky, nor is its understanding and implementation–it must be taught and developed. Where does that happen in the contemporary church apart from monasteries?
    Bp. Ware did a super job of describing the role of mentoring in the spirituality of the early Church in his introduction to Hausheer’s “Spirituality Direction in the Early Christian East,” though it too assumes it happens in a monastic context. What has struck me as fundamentally problematic since I became Orthodox is the tacit assumption (and practice) that there is one model of spirituality for lay and monastic alike, and that is the monastic model. As the discussion and comments about ascesis and marriage illustrate, assuming that the monastic spiritual model equally applies to the laity is simplistic at best, and problematic at worst.

  21. Ben, I think you touch on the need for a more direct explication of (for lack of a better phrase) “lay asceticism.” It’s there in the tradition, to be sure.

    Of course, once you understand how asceticism “works,” you see it in all of life. As I noted above, I know of NO ONE who is highly successful in ANY field who has not radically restructured their lives (their time, habits, efforts, etc.) in the service of their chosen endeavor. What is this but asceticism? In fact, this is what sets the best apart from the rest (excuse the unintended rhyme) — which takes me back to the point I raised before.

    No one pays the price of stringent discipline unless they have a clear goal, a compelling vision that they feel is worth the cost. In fact, such people don’t even see their efforts as a “cost” at all; for them it is an investment that gets them closer to their goal. If, however, people do not have a clear vision and goal, they simply won’t pay anything more than the minimal cost. (And they WILL see it as a “cost,” which is why it isn’t productive.) As Scripture says, without a vision, the people perish. If they DO have a vision – if their hearts are aflame with the love of God – then they will yearn to make the investment. (And, for them, it will be an investment.)

    It’s great to call for asceticism – from those already committed to the cause. If the goal, however, is to turn folks away from consumerism, it’s pointless. If the folks in the pews (if you have pews) are caught up in consumption, they are telling you by their behavior that they haven’t “got it”; their behavior shows that they do not yet know (or do not want) the love of God.

    If, however, we really want to address those caught in the sin of a consumption-centered life (which, really, is the only option available to folks living apart from God since the fall), then we need to focus on the reason (God’s love) before we talk about the way to pursue it. Otherwise even if they give away everything they have and sacrifice their life to the most stringent discipline, yet have not love, they gain nothing.

  22. Chrys- Thanks for your comments. I’m new to this dialogue, so don’t want to turn it into an argument–I think we agree in principle. However, in the consumerist culture all things get subsumed, and words themselves can take on different, even contrary, meanings.

    Personally (and I’m not an ascetic), I’m troubled when “being highly successful in any field”, which does imply rigor and training, etc., being equated with asceticism in the historic Christian traditional sense. Asceticism, does comes from the classic Greek “ascesis,” meaning rigorous training, self-discipline and self-restraint.” But in the spiritual tradition, doesn’t it take on and connote a spiritual dimension centered in fulfilling our potential in Christ? The trouble is that most of us limit our asceticism to bodily rigor and exercise–or business success, all at the expense of the spiritual dimension.

    That is partly what I was getting at in raising the subject of mentoring in the spiritual tradition of the Early Church. Just like the physical ascesis, the spiritual ascesis requires work and effort and rigor and mentoring–i.e. a spiritual father.

    Through asceticism each person works to transcend his fallen nature and its tendencies toward individualism and selfishness. Asceticism is an act of communion, not an act of deprivation. It is not scorn for the body and matter as much as it is, in the words of Christos Yannaras, a “ for the beauty of personal fulfillment and restoration to the image of God. It is the struggle to renounce my egocentric tendency to see everything as neutral objects, subject to my needs and desires.”

    Quite a contrast to Marx’s observation that the bureaucrat sees the world as the object of his activity-which feels a bit like “being highly successful in any field.”

    Again, we may be more in agreement than disagreement, and just defining the terms differently!

  23. Christian asceticism is not of this world. It is the disciplining of the passions. As even a cursory review of the business or sports pages indicates, unless the passions are disciplined the rest can go away quite rapidly.

    Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance, worship.

    This is where a monk has an advantage over married folk. Married folk are very much involved in the world all the time. That does not relieve us from the task of disciplining our passions, in fact, IMO, that task becomes even more essential. It’s no accident that many ascetics have not only a spiritual father, but a partner in their stuggle, e.g, St. Silaoun and Elder Sophrony.

    I think you are quite correct Ben.

  24. Ben, thank you for your kind and courteous manner in addressing some perceived differences. I really appreciate it. I have read your comments – and Michael’s as well – and I completely agree with what you are saying – which makes me think I may not have been as clear as I need to be.

    I believe that asceticism is essential, the process of collaboration with the Spirit by which we endeavor to transcend our death-giving egoism and disordered passions and begin to truly enter into eternal Life through communion with the Life-giving Trinity.

    I also assume that all Truth is One. This means that life, in all of its facets will confirm or reveal elements of the truth. Thus, asceticism is revealed to be intrinsic to any form of successful effort – even in a shadow of its true meaning, even in the most worldly venture. I believe that it reflects how God made us and is a sign, as it were, of the real asceticism involved in true spiritual transformation. This is not meant to diminish asceticism to mere technique nor confuse it with its transcendent purpose. It is only to say that God shows us in even our fallen ways how vital discipline, training, sacrifice and directing our efforts are to ANY kind of success. Nor is it to equate spiritual asceticism with its more secular efforts. Indeed, because our egoism is SO very deeply rooted in us, spiritual asceticism is necessarily of an altogether different and higher order. That is, the complete restructuring of the fallen self requires an asceticism that is at once radical, demanding, subtle and absolute. It requires – and will cost – all that we are; but we only “lose” what has no true value in order to gain what is of eternal, infinite value: we gain God Himself.

    I am also making a distinction between means and end, between the practice of asceticism and the object of the practice. This point was made by St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov: asceticism is never an end in itself, but an essential means. The proper end is, to quote St. Seraphim, the acquisition of the Spirit and communion with God.

    Engaging in the ascetical process is essential for all the reasons both of your note – with which I fully agree. Thus, as your comments show, both of you clearly “get” WHY asceticism is vital (as I hope I do, too.).
    The only point I have tried to make is that the Patriarch’s message seems to be offering the process of transformation to folks who, by definition, clearly don’t “get it.” (As I noted before, those who live by consumption are showing by their behavior that they do not “get it.”) Some may doubt this, but I have found that when people persist in any behavior, they generally do so for a reason. Thus, despite whatever they may claim to know, their practice indicates something very different: their belly (more generally: appetite or passions) is still their actual god, not the Living God. In my experience, people who live by consumption are essentially using creation to fill the God-shaped whole in their lives. If they haven’t turned from consumption, it is often because they do not yet really know that there is a better way of life or do not believe that it is truly worth it. To put it crassly: until that happens, talking about asceticism is like giving training techniques to someone who never goes to the gym and really doesn’t know why anyone would bother going.

    Thus, while asceticism is indeed THE corrective to a consumption-driven life (a point I have made in numerous posts), there can be no effective ascetical effort unless it is built on a foundation of faith and love. Before we can talk to them about the absolute value and importance of asceticism (the means), we must first help them to come to know the goal that asceticism serves (the end). I suspect that this is what St. Paul is alluding to when he says that children must be fed milk before they can be give real meat.

    In short, we must first show those enthralled by consumption the surpassing value of the love of God – or at least the idea of a God-filled life. Only after the conversion of the heart to the love of God can we then talk to them about the ascetical process which seeks to conform our lives to that love. They need to know that the answer to the whole in their hearts is not “buying more stuff,” but God Himself. They will not truly begin to take on the demands of asceticism – transformative thought it may be – until they get that first. Once they “get” the WHY, then . . . everything you said.

    I can only give an AMEN! to the need for a spiritual partner like Elder Paisios or Elder Sophrony. In the end sanctity is personal, not programmatic. As I have often noted, a transformed heart can save thousands around (to paraphrase St. Seraphim). This is the gift beyond measure of a holy elder for us – and, if we are faithful, the gift we can be to others.

  25. Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory certainly “got it”:

  26. I agree with Michael. However, the asceticism of the very early church did go to extremes, people eating grass and fasting days on end led to some damage to the internal organs and illusions. Most people can not fast for 40 days like Jesus. Granted, St Antony of Egypt had admirable qualities and so did the stylites but some of this went to extreme. Many didn’t take baths for years that were in the early ascetic movement which leads to bad hygene. Granted, plumbing became less available as you left the late Roman Period to the Middle ages but some believe like St Jerome that bathing led to vanity. Jerome too is admirable but not on his view on bathing. We probably could give more to the poor or develop business that could put the poor on employement if we had smaller houses or less goodies but some of that consumer spending also creates jobs.

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