What is Asceticism?

by Fred Schaeffer, OFS

The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis (practice, training or exercise). Originally associated with any form of disciplined practice, the term ascetic has come to mean anyone who practices a renunciation of worldly pursuits to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual goals.
The key to the etymology of the word "ascetic" in the above definition, are the words: "renunciation of worldly pursuits" and St. Francis is a model of living in poverty, obedience and chastity. St. Francis was "hard of himself" in order to purge worldly allures. We must be tough in order to stay close to Jesus and in order to live the Gospel. To spread the Gospel, it is necessary to practice the Gospel first.

When I was involved with the Monks of Adoration for almost five years, I lived a life as close to asceticism as possible. Why was that so hard? Well, living a closed, intense, life while purging out all temptations and distractions, is very counter-cultural. The 'world' isn't like that. If it were, there would be peace today! My life as a monk in New England was a strict life. It was a life of depravation. Our sleeping floor had no heat. That meant getting up in temperatures that would make the average tenant cringe! Often it was below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes even below 35! For a while, I slept in a cell (monks' bedrooms are called cells) on the Northwest corner of the house, completely exposed (there was no vegetation on the outside of the building), measuring about 9 feet by 6 feet. But we had one luxury - an electric blanket. Without that we could have frozen to death. When the winter got colder, my Superior told me to move to the front of the house where I wasn't in the prevailing wind direction. Asceticism is severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence.

St. Francis' wore hair shirts, lived an austere penitential life, but his lifestyle differed from that of a contemplative monastic individual. Franciscans are mendicants. They go out and beg for their food. To a degree, they still do in the modern world. Only now the begging is with the aid of computers and the printing press. I wouldn't call our life austere by any means, but we do practice frugality where appropriate. The modern Franciscans, and perhaps especially the Secular Franciscan who lives in the market place, so to speak, aren't exposed to monastic regimen. They are not shielded to a certain extent from distraction and temptation, so they need to be more vigilant. If we can associate ourselves with the ascetical life, we'll be in a much better position to fight the excesses of the world and become a true friend of God.

There is another aspect of asceticism that is easily overlooked while we live, as Secular Franciscans, in the world at large. That is, the development of a personal and internal discipline striving toward a very close relationship with Jesus Christ. There asceticism has nothing to do with the external (hair shirts, no heat) but is rather a form of internal conditioning leading to this inner life with Jesus, Mary and/or the saints. Such a lifestyle is not easier than the traditional monastic asceticism. It is more difficult because we are living in the world at large.

How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that he asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities. From the Detailed Rules for Monks by Saint Basil the Great, bishop (last few lines of the Second Reading OOR 1/29/19)

We need to stress here the SFO's emphasis to defend and support the Christian and Social Value of the Family and to Witness the Gospel everywhere. As Secular Franciscans we need to know the Gospel in order to witness the Gospel.  To live the Gospel takes a lot of love and dedication. All Catholics are supposed to live the Gospel but Secular Franciscans in particular if they are going to spread the Good News. There is a certain ascetical mindset involved here - a personal code, if you will, leading to complete identification with Jesus as our Brother... we need to live our lives much as religious do, but in a worldly setting. I can hear St. Francis say: "Less talk! - Go do it!"


Fred Schaeffer, OFS (2007 rev. Jan. 2019)


Adoramus te

We adore you,
Lord Jesus Christ,
here and in all your churches
in the whole world,
and we bless you,
because by your Holy Cross
you have redeemed
the world.

St. Francis of Assisi
Prayer on Entering or Leaving a Church
(cf. The Testament 4)


Secular Franciscan Order
Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis

Divine Mercy Fraternity

Vero Beach, FL


Term expires: 2/10/2022

Fred Schaeffer, OFS

Helen Caldarone, OFS

Mary "Jean" McGovern, OFS

 Jack Reddy, OFS


Formation Director: 
Donna Haro, OFS



 Joanne Giordano, OFS


Fred Schaeffer, OFS

Five Franciscan Martyrs

Fraternities Map

Print Print | Sitemap
© Divine Mercy Fraternity, Secular Franciscan Order