One of the biggest questions confronting spirituality for laypeople is the question of austerity, mortification, penitential acts, silence, distance from creatures. There is no doubt that these things, united to Jesus and his Cross, are good. Even suffering itself, while bad in itself, is good when united to Jesus and his Cross. So still more is austerity in living good.
Even more, the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are suggested to all, so they must imply goodness. Of course, sovereign love itself demands that many of us do not take certain counsels in their exact form, because we have other duties of care (even to our own health or our parents’, to society, and so on). But each of us is required to cultivate the spirit of poverty (detachment), the spirit of chastity (in spirit if not in body), and the spirit of obedience (in general providence if not to a specific superior). That much is not optional. Detachment is required even in the midst of plenty: “Let those who deal with the world [do so] as though they had no dealings with it” (cf. 1 Cor 7:30).
So how does a layperson live this?
That is a big question. Laypeople cannot cut themselves off from creatures, create vast spaces of silence, harm themselves somewhat with fasts, etc. like monks. That is out of the question. Duties prevent it. We have duties to families, friends, employers, and rare is the layperson who, with such duties, could achieve great acts of austerity, great acts of penance, great acts of mortification, and great physical silence.
So then, where is holiness to be found? To be sure, it is found in charity, in love of God and neighbour. But the means of great austerity, helpful to attain great charity, are removed.
This reminds me of the stories of two famous persons. One is the Buddha. One is Blessed Henry Suso.
The Buddha, before his enlightenment, sought a way of great austerity and self-mortification. I’ve written about this before. I find it interesting. Of course, I do not think that the goals of Buddhist meditation and of Christian prayer are the same, but I still find this parallel interesting. The Buddha fasted much. But in the end, that was not the way. Because, of course, then he grew attached to fasting. He was attached to a very means of getting better. And that won’t do. Christians think similarly. Fasting is but a means. It is not the goal. To become attached to the means would be folly.
Henry Suso also pursued extreme fasting, mortification, and penitential acts. First he slept oddly. Then he wore much in the way of uncomfortable clothes. Then he bore a cross on his back, complete with nails piercing his skin. Then he denied himself water except for one glass a day. He pursued each practice sequentially. At the end of a certain period of each practice, God showed him that this was not the real way. It was insufficient. It might have tamed his body and soul somewhat. But it was not deep enough. When he realized this, he would move on to a new austerity. This continued for some time. Then came a breaking point. He realized that each of his austere practices and any more that he might ever be inclined to in the future was insufficient and that a new step had to be taken. At that point, he wrote in the book of his Life:
God showed him that all this austerity and all these practices were nothing more than a good beginning, and a breaking through his uncrushed natural man; and he saw that he must press on still further in quite another way, if he wished to reach perfection.
If such an austere first step is possible, given one’s life circumstances, then it may perhaps be taken. But it is only a first step. The real goal is to curb the deeper parts of our will. We must resist ourselves, and we must let God do even greater work on his own. In a later chapter in his Life, Blessed Henry describes this as “a perpetual giving up of self, as far as human frailty will allow.” He gets past human strength and speaks of human frailty. And not only that. He gets past human actions and gets to the heart of the issue: giving up our self, so that God can fill it with himself.
Austere penance, great physical silence, and immense mortification can be good, and no one should say that they are to be avoided by all. But even for those to whom they are possible, they are only a beginning. They tame the “old man.” They are not necessarily manifestations of the “new man.” It is that new created being that we are after. And that is something that lay spirituality can pursue, regardless of how much mortification, penance, silence, and austerity we are able to adopt.