Prayer, Asceticism, Fraternity & Cold Showers
“While everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds” (Matthew 13:25).
Prayer. Asceticism. Fraternity.
A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two men discussing cold showers. It immediately peaked my interest. I had the idea once, and, after a 5 second trial jettisoned it as fast as you can cry ‘help’! For some months now, these men had formed the habit of taking daily showers in glacial temperatures. There are a lot of benefits, they told me. It increases metabolism, improves blood circulation, burns fat and glucose, lowers stress, and gives you a dopamine kick that far out rivals an extra large coffee.
Something sparked in me. Can it be done? Day one arrived. I looked up at the shower nozzle with foreboding. The only thing that made me pull the trigger was that I did not want to be outmanned. It felt like getting hit on the head with a two-by-four. Biting fury of inhumane discomfort filled by body, and I had a knot in my shoulder for the next 24 hours. The next morning, I decided to take another sip of cruel death but this time take it face on. The results were more positive, and in a few days I discovered something wholly unexpected. All those anxious worries that often plague the first hours of the day are gone. The morning routine, usually marked by sluggishness, was filled with energy and zest.
Something extraordinary happens when you first crawl out of your bed to intentionally deny yourself and defy the body’s demand to be pampered. We spend our lives wanting to be coddled, and are consequently unhappy and unsatisfied. When we deny ourselves, make sacrifice our priority, and pursue asceticism over self-indulgence, we discover peace and contentment.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
No human beings have ever been so pampered, coddled, and entertained as we are, and no civilization has ever been so overwhelmed with depression, anxiety, and boredom. We can click a button, and find the most exotic, gastronomical thrills delivered to our door step, and we are hungry and unsatisfied. Our homes overflow with every time-saving gadget imaginable, and we are rushed, frantic, and harried. Algorithms pummel us with endless varieties of shows, music, and extravagance fine-tuned to our taste, and we cannot find anything to watch. Could it be, I wonder, that Jesus Christ was on to something?
We are drowning in mind-numbing pleasures, and there is only way out: Prayer, Asceticism, and Fraternity.
“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
“I discipline my body and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
“If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
St. John Cassian taught this in the fourth century A.D.:
“No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual, reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the kingdom of heaven.”
“Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labor . . . Try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh.”
On the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, the Western Rite lectionary brings us the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. The master sowed good seed in his field. An enemy came and scattered weeds in the same field. They sprung up over night, chocked the life of the wheat and depleted the soil.
We all struggle with our bad habits and addictions, and we easily identify with the servants: “Master, did you not sow good seed in the field?” Where did these weeds come from? Why am I going through this? How did I get stuck in this rut? God replies: “An enemy has done this.” For a passing second, that sounds like a pleasant excuse. The devil is to blame! But we do not get off the hook so easily. The devil sows the weeds, but he gets away with it only when . . . what . . . we are sleeping.
“While everybody was asleep, the enemy came” (Matthew 13:25).
ἐν δὲ τῷ καθεύδειν - “In the hour of katheudein” — drowsiness, sloth, heedlessness.
Katheudo can also refer to death.
On that final day, Archangel Michael will arrive and “All those sleeping in the dust of the earth will awake” (Daniel 12:2).
One can also be asleep in sin. “For this reason it says, ‘Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14).
So let’s face it. We are all spiritually sleepy nowadays. We are drowning in our mind-numbing pleasures, and it is not making us happy. Pornography and video games are sapping every last bit of testosterone in men. Online shopping and self-identity crises are chocking up the souls of women. Parents and adolescents have so many texts to answer, notifications to check, and games to play, that they hardly look up from their phones to see one another. Modern life has become one intoxicating stupor, summed up by our Lord’s words: “While everybody was asleep, the enemy came” (Matthew 13:25).
Where do we turn?? There is only one way out: Prayer. Asceticism. Fraternity.
Christ came and called twelve fishermen to leave everything behind and follow him. They became homeless and slept on the hard ground under the stars. They gave over every waking moment to prayer and contemplation of their Rabbi. They lived as a brotherhood — a fraternitas eccentricas — a fraternity with a different center — a life marked by boundaries and disciplines anchoring one’s affections on God.
In the early Church, some men and women modeled their lives on the disciples by fleeing into the desert, and living in monastic cloisters. Others remained in society, but they started their own orders of dedicated faithful. They made it their life and passion to go to daily Liturgy, and to pray the Divine Office, Matins, and Vespers, and various litanies at every hour. They gave up worldly entertainments to entertain their hearts on heaven.
St. John Chrysostom describes how the faithful gathered not only every dawn to chant psalmody, but at the third, sixth, and ninth hour. St. Basil details how Christians gathered to pray Vespers in great numbers, “no small multitude of either sex remaining and chanting with [the brethren], until it grew dark.” Historians through the centuries, observed the same dedication all throughout Christendom, and that fervor only wained in the modern era.
Now it remains to us. How will we live?
"Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer" (Romans 12:9-12).
In light of the disciples’ fervor, is it so great a sacrifice to skip a television show and go to church?
When faced with all our modern drugs and distractions, is it so silly to take fasting seriously?
How absurd is it to make it a goal to become an ascetic?
We cannot do it alone. We need a brotherhood or a sisterhood: Christian fraternity.
While researching cold showers, I came across an article on PremierChristianity.com. Its title: “How 90 days of cold showers, fasting and no TV changed my life.” One Protestant tells his story and offers an insight worth heeding:
“I have just endured 90 days without a hot shower or bath . . . I gave up snacking between meals, began a regular exercise routine, started waking up earlier, and cut down on pointless screen usage. Most significantly, my intimacy with God grew - my mind cleared and I realized how preoccupied with my own comfort and needs I’d become. I was able to breathe again - to see and hear God through the scriptures and speaking into my heart afresh. I also began a war on procrastination, something that has become a real problem for me in these last few years. I’m still in it, but have taken ground, and the best thing is, I now have some keys to help me on the way: prayer, asceticism, and fraternity.”
We have a lot of problems in this world, but we are not stuck. We have every same opportunity that Sts. Peter and Andrew did, and all the disciples, when Christ invited them into a new way of life. Let’s stop justifying ourselves and join them.