For Lent: Perils of asceticism

March 27, 2009

I think he told me that for forty years he slept only an hour and a half during the night and that in the beginning this was his greatest penitential trial, to conquer sleep, and that to do this he was always either on his knees or standing.  When he did sleep, he did so sitting up, with his head resting on a little log nailed to the wall.  He could not have stretched out even if he wanted to, because his cell – as is known – was no larger than four and a half feet.  However hot or rainy the weather was in all those years, he never put up his cowl; he wore nothing on his feet, nor did he wear any clothes other than a course serge habit with nothing else to cover the body – that was as tight as could be, and a short mantle over it made of the same material.  He told me that when it was terribly cold he took the mantle off and left the door and little window of his cell opened so that afterward by putting the mantle on again and closing the door he was able to appease the body by the warmth that came from more covering.  Eating every third day was a very common practice with him, and he told me when I showed surprise that it was easily possible for anyone who got used to doing so.

— St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life.

11 Responses to “For Lent: Perils of asceticism”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    Jeopardy (style) response:

    “Who is St. John of the Cross?”

  2. Janet Says:

    There’s obviously no hope for me.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Oh, don’t worry about that, Janet. This guy, whoever he was, is no exemplar worthy of imitation. What ever happened to the golden mean?

    Interesting guess, Christina, but I don’t think so. If I remember correctly, she was talking about some other uber-ascetic of her acquaintance.

  4. I find it hard, bordering on impossible, to believe that anyone could go a few weeks weeks, let alone forty years, sleeping no more than an hour and a half a night. Seems impossible without becoming completely deranged, and probably breaking down physically in much less than forty years.

    Although there are the occasional freaks:

  5. Paul Says:

    I always assumed that kind of thing meant “no more than an hour and a half at a time” (rising to pray and then getting another hour and a half, and then rising to pray again, etc.), rather than “no more than an hour and a half a night”, which would make people incapable of carrying out their other duties.

  6. Paul Says:

    I’ve come across it before (always in Carmelite contexts – why might that be?) and that just seemed to the only possible human interpretation: that the height of asceticism is to get as much sleep as the parent of a small child.

  7. Janet Says:

    Shhhh. Paul, you aren’t supposed to tell him that yet.

    AMDG, Janet

  8. Nick Milne Says:

    Speaking as someone who can look forward to several hundred thousand years in purgatory, if not something much worse, I can say with conviction that I intend to stay as far away from asceticism as is possible. No sense jumping the gun, after all.

  9. Christina A. Says:

    In university, we did a lot of reading and talking about the differences between literary genres in the middle ages. My suspicion, if this type of description appears in other contemporaneous Carmelite writings (it’s definitely in the St. John of the Cross related stuff), is that this might be part literal truth and part literary device.

    Considering that Teresa and her colleagues were monastic reformers claiming to restore the original asceticism established by the prophet Elijah, there may have even been a political aspect to these hyperbolic descriptions.

  10. KathyB Says:

    I’m voting with Christina, I think this is referring to St. John of the Cross.

    And sadly, Paul is also right. But maybe that at least means that some of my hundreds of thousands of years in purgatory are already paid up.

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