The joy of desert places

Tom – my giant neighbour – is a fan of the ascetic way of life, and as we have chatted I have become convinced that he’s onto something. Yesterday afternoon we sat down to chat about asceticism: what it is, why Tom is excited about it, and why it’s important.

Tom describes the joy of asceticism the following way. “Movies and chocolate are nice, but if you watch and eat them for a week, you feel dreadful. However, if you go for a walk, you may not feel like going, but at the end you feel glad of it. Asceticism is like this on a large scale – but I’m sure we can only go there with the help of the Holy Spirit. I want to see what ‘there’ looks like, because I think it’s a joyful place.”

It’s about simplicity, in what we believe and in our material expectations. In theology, it’s about a direct relationship with what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago; and in our material lives it’s relying less and less on luxuries and secret crutches to get through the day. “I’ve tried most of them”, smiles Tom.

But it also has society-wide implications. We live in a complex world in which insurance companies, lawyers and accountants set out what is required of us and of our communities – which is both a symptom of our divided world, and a cause of it. For the last ten years Tom has had the conviction that England is set for a serious economic desert (with the financial crises of the last year or so, he’s not the only one) – but out of this impoverishment, during which asceticism may be forced on us, the nation will regain its soul.

Finchale priory on the River Wear, just north of Durham… from an era more used to ascetic lifestyles

One of Tom’s heroes is the great Celtic saint of the north-east, Cuthbert, who spent many years as a hermit on the Farne Islands, but was for a short while bishop of Lindisfarne. During this time he performed many miracles, particularly of healing. I ask Tom whether Cuthbert was too extreme? He replies, “Isn’t Christ too extreme? If anyone actually heals someone, isn’t that too extreme for many of us?” and then adds “Cuthbert was consistently holy. The room of his heart was always swept clean and ready for holiness. When holiness came, he was ready for it. Many of us have flashes in the pan: it’s the perpetual smouldering fire distinguishes the saint, and I think asceticism can get us there”.

More recently, Tom’s been impressed by the example of David Hope, who some years ago resigned as Archbishop of York in order to return to being a parish priest. He’s planning to meet him soon to have a series of conversations about a “new asceticism” – to quote Hope – to get a better idea of the territory and possibly to publish the resulting dialogue. For Tom, Hope’s action demonstrates what asceticism is about: it was a move away from power and status, towards humility and truth.

Farne Islands