Asceticism: The Cure for Consumerism

September 9, 2009

An article by John Couretas points out the spiritual aspects of a recent Wells Fargo Securities report which 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.

What gives? Couretas says:

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.

Couretas then relates the power of every day ascetism as 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)

Read the full article here:

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