The soul intent on attaining God must aspire to holiness, which is itself best understood as the deepest form of psychological health. In this endeavour, they have a choice to make. This is between the ascetical path and the aesthetical path. Both feature prominently in Catholic culture.
The first path entails setting aside all secondary goods (and so the beauty to be found in the material world) and choosing to live a life of austerity; focussing solely on the one truly desirable object: God. This path is represented in the austerity of a Cistercian Abbey or Carthusian Chatreuse.
The second path entails embracing secondary goods (and so the beauty which is to be found in the material world) as an intimation of God: the one truly beautiful object of desire. This path is represented in the vibrancy of a Gothic Cathedral or Byzantine Basilica.
The Ascetic Way
The advantage of the first path (which Plato terms the "Philosophical”) is that it is simple to understand. The soul’s motive for taking this way is a concern that it might be distracted from its true end and goal by lesser and passing beauties. It is, perhaps, the easier of the two paths – for those who have the character to stomach it. It is like a goat track leading straight up a mountainside to the summit. If one follows this path one will not readily become lost; but it requires courage.
The fact that Christ tells us that our earthly journey will be hard if we faithfully follow Him suggests that one should seek to mitigate this difficulty as far as possible. Too often life in the world is a “vale of tears”, so the ascetic deems it sensible to avoid worldly entanglements; even to the extent of renouncing many things and activities which are manifestly wholesome in themselves and are deemed good in Scripture.
The ascetic is largely free of the cares and systematic suffering which are characteristic of mundane life; so they must impose extrinsic penance upon themselves, else the way they have chosen will rapidly become a self-indulgent escape from reality. The first such penance is, of course, the very renunciation of worldly pleasure which lies at the heart of their lifestyle. The second is (for those ascetics who live in community) the trials of a conventual life, from which there is no escape. The third is whatever additional regime of fasting and discipline they and their spiritual director deem appropriate. The ascetic must eschew genital sexuality as much as every other unnecessary species of sensory pleasure. Not because they think it bad in itself; but only because they know it to be, for them, a distraction from the erotic pursuit of God. The ascetic does not have to reject friendship, for one ascetic can be of great help to another in their common ascent of the straight way to the spiritual summit they jointly aspire to; and the fellowship of friends of God is hardly any distraction from the friendship of God itself. However, in the most extreme form of asceticism, the hermit avoids all but unavoidable interactions with any other soul.
The danger of the ascetic way is that it can lead to an aridity and harshness of soul; where all that is good in the world is discounted as valueless or, worse, wicked and nothing more than a source of temptation. It can also lead to a spiritual conceit which despises all those who have not themselves adopted the ascetic path. The ascetic can easily be corrupted into the Puritan; or even the Gnostic, who accounts God’s physical Creation as basically evil.
The Aesthetic Way
The advantage of the second path is that it is more gentle and compatible with the inclinations of the human heart. It offers more pleasure and comfort along the way – but also more pain and suffering. The soul’s motive for taking this path is a delight in the goodness of God’s creation and a recognition of the revelation of the Divine which is to be found therein. This way is like a gentle winding path up a mountain that leads to the summit, but which takes in a number of lesser beauty spots on the way. If one follows this path one will not readily become disheartened; but it requires temperance.
The fact that Christ tells us that our earthly journey will be hard if we faithfully follow Him, doesn’t mean that we must reject the mundane pleasures which are readily available to us in God’s wondrous creation. Too often life in the world is a “vale of tears”, so the aesthete deems it not sensible to renounce those things and activities which are an immediate comfort to the soul, manifestly wholesome, and deemed good in Scripture. The aesthete finds due penance in their daily life; in their social interactions, family involvements, relationships with friends and the demands of their profession, business or work. For many people this is ample challenge; but others can benefit from the discipline of extrinsic penance.
The danger of the aesthetic way is that it can lead to self-indulgence: a confusion of the limited value of the immediate gratification of the mind and body with the infinite value of the eventual gratification which will result from union with God. The aesthete can easily be corrupted into the Hedonist or even the Materialist, who accounts as worthwhile only what they can see, hear, taste, smell and feel.
Our Lord’s example
It is a moot point as to which way of holiness Jesus’ human life exemplifies. It seems as if Jesus was intent on presenting both options to us in His earthly life; so as to validate both and indicate that either is good and proper. On the one hand Our Lord was not married, moreover we are told that His ministry was prefaced by an extended fast, and that He regularly desired to “get away from the crowds” in order to devote Himself to prayer. These facts are all characteristic of the Ascetic way. On the other hand, Jesus was deeply attached to “the disciple whom He loved”, Lazarus4 and to Martha and Mary the two sisters of Lazarus. Moreover, He accepted the caress of Mary of Magdala, associated Himself with sinners and was accused of revelry by His detractors. These facts are all characteristic of the Aesthetic way.
1. Courage is the virtue that distinguishes between what is truly to be feared and that which only seems to be fearsome. It allows the agent to act with simplicity, integrity and whole-heartedness.
2. Temperance is the virtue which moderates and organises the emotions, appetites and desires so that they are coordinated and harmonised towards the obtaining of what is truly good for the agent.
3. Mat 9:10-13; 11:19.