Pledging and Stewardship As Spiritual Asceticism

Sometimes people ask why during our Lenten seasons is there such total emphasis on food fasting and little emphasis on loving others or giving to charity.   All the rules and the calendars seem to deal with food.  I will venture one opinion:  Our fasting rules for Lent were developed in monasteries.  Basically the Christian monastics already have given up all personal possessions in order to follow Christ.  As such they don’t possess disposable wealth any longer to give to the poor.   However, there is still one thing they have – a dependency on something other than God – that is  the need and appetite for food.  Since they have already given up claims to private property, they are free to struggle with their personal appetites.  Thus in monasteries there is not a reason to constantly push people to be charitable to the poor through giving material wealth, but rather there is much focus on fasting from food.

But those of us who aren’t monks and who have not renounced all claims to life in the world, who have families for whom we are responsible to feed, clothe and house, and income to meet these needs, we do have a responsibility not to limit Lent to rules about food fasting, but especially to apply ourselves to self denial in another way by giving to the poor – sharing our resources with those in need.  This is an essential part of Lent for us, but doesn’t much apply to monks who have no wealth or property to share with others in need.

St. Simeon the New Theologian once famously noted that if the Matthew 25 passage on the Last Judgment is literally true, monks will not fare well since they have no food, clothes, or shelter to share with the needy.  (I intend to deal with his comments in another blog).  From his comments we can see that the monastic way is decidedly a different way to follow Christ than it is for those of us who have food, clothes and shelter to share with the needy (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters), and who can visit the sick and the imprisoned (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters).

Elizabeth Theokritoff writes about this in her book:

“There is one sacramental service where we are reminded in a particular explicit way that whatever we have over and above our basic needs is actually given to us for the benefit of others. In the wedding service, the priest prays for the couple: ‘Fill their houses with wheat, wine and oil, and with ever beneficence, that they may bestow in turn upon the needy.’ In a certain sense, marriage may be thought of as an ordination to Christian life ‘in the world,’ as opposed to monastic life. Whereas the monastic has given up all possessions, the Christian in the world characteristically ‘owns’ money and material goods – in other words, he or she is not called to eschew these things altogether, but to administer them for the good of others. It is here that the overused notion of ‘stewardship’ has a legitimate place: it applies precisely to those things that in legal terms we ‘own’, and to the way we use ‘our’ money, goods, and land. Because financial stewardship is often associated with ideas such as tithing, it may be useful to remind ourselves that we are stewards primarily not of what we give away, but of what we keep to use for our own purposes.”  (Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, pg. 202)