Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Asceticism

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Asceticism

Article excerpt

Asceticism. Edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis. (New York: Oxford University Press. 1995. Pp. xxiii, 638. $125.00.)

This monumental collection of essays adds new weight to the evidence for a surprisingly vigorous and growing interest in religious asceticism. Our age in western culture, and particularly in North America, has seemed quite tone-deaf to the ascetic.Yet these essays suggest not only a new and serious intellectual curiosity about ascetic phenomena in other times and places, but even the emergence of individuals and small groups in diverse corners of our own society whose quest for focus and renewal of life is leading them to explore various traditions of disciplined practice.

This is not to say that, as scholars or lay people, we know quite what to think about asceticism. The participants in the international conference that produced these papers, held at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in April, 1993, did not attempt to agree on a definition of the term.The papers also reveal considerable diversity not only in the specific subject matter described but in method and approach and even in fundamental attitude toward ascetic practice. Kallistos Ware, in the opening address, cites two Russian Orthodox thinkers who celebrate respectively asceticism's power to liberate the human person and to produce "a beautiful personality." By contrast, Bruce Malina, adopting a determinedly "modern" and "scientific" viewpoint, sees only "selfshrinkage."The reactions of readers may oscillate between these poles of horror at the ascetic and fascination with it.Yet the obvious depth of knowledge and the extraordinary ability of the contributors to convey their knowledge will lead most readers to new appreciation for the power of the ascetic impulse as well as to vastly increased understanding of the variety of its expressions.

The plan of the book generally follows that of the conference. …

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