Today I want to talk about three words: repentance – the Greek word, metanoia and asceticism.
Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark are mysterious. He tells us that the time of fulfillment has arrived, and then says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
What does he mean by “repent?” To understand this, you must first understand what is meant by the “Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom refers to when things are done God’s way and where his will and heart are allowed to guide people’s lives. This is often not done in our lives, hence Jesus’ recognition of the need to establish the Sacrament of Reconciliation to assist us in our repentance.
The word “repentance” is based on the Greek word, “metanoia.” Metanoia also can mean “to change one’s mind,” or “to think from one’s mind.” The action implied is that a person mulls over what they are thinking and doing, considers the ramifications and then, having decided that a different course is advised, changes their mind, their direction and their actions.
At the heart of metanoia is asceticism. Asceticism comes from the Greek askesis which means “to practice” or “bodily exercise” or “athletic training.” It can also refer to “spiritual discipline,” “spiritual striving” or “spiritual training.” It is the integration of spiritual and physical training to achieve metanoia or repentance.
What could contemporary askesis and metanoia look like in modern life? Let’s look at our interaction with technology.
A Children’s Health article asked, Teen cellphone addiction: How bad has it gotten? The article references a recent study where “One out of two teenagers feels ‘addicted’ to their phone.”
Dr. Marc Siegel is an associate professor of medicine at New York University – Langone Medical Center and serves as the Medical Director of Doctor Radio with NYU Langone and SeriusXM Radio. In “Smartphones really are dangerous for our kids,” Dr. Siegel points to new reports, which indicate that “heavy smartphone use by children can lead to an increased rate of social isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts and even suicide.” Similar alarms were recently found in “iPhones and us: It’s time for independent study, public awareness and regulation,” an article found in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
This seems to be a field that is ripe for metanoia and askesis. People in the tech field realize this as well. In his book, The Benedict Option, author and blogger Rod Dreher writes, “did you know that Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs did not let his children use iPads and strictly limited their access to technology? Dreher also writes that Chris Anderson (Co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones),
..told the New York Times in 2014 that “his home is like a tech monastery for his five children. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules…. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
So what would be an ascetical practice in reference to our use of technology? It could be turning off the electronics after a certain time. It could be no electronic devices upstairs in the bedrooms. Back in 2012 I wrote a post referencing TV journalist Bill Moyer and his interview with Marty Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan was a media professor at the University of Southern California. He was discussing with Moyer how he annually does a technology fast for a week at a retreat center in the desert mountains.
Let me give another example dealing with our interaction with finances and stuff. I don’t shop on Sundays. An evangelical friend of mine told me of this practice that he and his wife started right after they had their first child. I have tried to continue that practice for several years.
The Greek Orthodox book, The Year of the Lord, mentions that,
Askesis is for all – not only for monastics. Askesis should also not be identified with the extreme external disciplines associated with the word “ascetic” — harsh fasts, long vigils, and strong self-denial regarding every earthly blessing. Rather the essence of askesis involves the struggle in our hearts between good and evil, God and Satan, the Kingdom of God and the world. Its goal is the “new life in Christ” (metanoia). Its principles are the teachings of Christ. Its power is the grace of Christ which is especially experienced in the Eucharist and personal prayer.
Why is this important? Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, both from Duke University say that asceticism is a vital part of a Christian life. “It gives us the resources to lead truthful lives.” This can be considered in two ways. First, it’s about loving God. if we say we are people of the next world and not this world, we need to be people whose lives witness to that fact in some way, that the way we handle the things of this world show that they are not the highest priority in our lives.
Look at today’s “Second Reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
The world in its present form is passing away. I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully.
Second, it’s about loving neighbor. Askesis assists us in our interactions with each other. Brother Ignatius from Clear Creek Benedictine Abbey in Oklahoma says that asceticism is a type of “spiritual housecleaning. If “you’re so busy cleaning up your own house … you have no time to look at your neighbor’s house.”
Father John Kavanaugh, S.J. was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University. Writing about this topic he said that we need to understand that Jesus “wasn’t some fanatic unexpectedly demanding an irrational abandonment of family, career, and previous plans.” Jesus understands the tremendous capacities, as well as the substantial limitations, of his followers. “Jesus built up a relationship of mutual knowledge and trust – first – before he invited them to become his full-time disciples. First Corinthians 10:13 says that, “No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Also examine the words of Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”
Ash Wednesday is in less than three weeks. On that day, while placing the ashes on your forehead, the priest or minister has the option of saying, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” The entire community will be encouraged to enter into the traditional ascetic forms of “prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” These practices are important as author Rod Dreher writes, “A church that does not emphasize asceticism and discipleship is as pointless as a football coaching staff that doesn’t care if its players show up for practice.”
In closing, two interesting articles I found dealing with the topics of this homily are
An Open Letter to My Boys regarding Technology (and their use of it) by Charles Martin from his blog, The Kitchen Sink (Wednesday, January 09, 2013)
Audio version of the homily is here: