Here we begin a necessarily critical parenthesis, calling to mind the distortions produced in Christian piety, especially in what we call the western societies, by the neglect of asceticism and more particularly of the physical character of asceticism. Fasting, which a the most immediate and general act of asceticism in the Church, is now all but abolished in the West, even on the official level. The center of gravity in Christian piety is shifted further if not exclusively onto what is called "individual moral consistency," onto rationally justifiable areas of behavior, and an obedience to the commands of social utility which is logically self-evident and objectively necessary.
Increasingly, Christian life seems to be nothing more than a particular way of behaving, a code of good conduct. Christianity is increasingly alienated, becoming a social attribute adapted to meet the least worthy of human demands—conformity, sterile conservatism, pusillanimity and timidity; it is adapted to the trivial moralizing which seeks to adorn cowardice and individual security with the funerary decoration of social decorum. The people who really thirst for life, who stand daily on the brink of every kind of death, who struggle desperately to distinguish some light in the sealed mystery of human existence —these are the people to whom the Gospel of salvation is primarily and most especially addressed, and inevitably they all remain far removed from the rationalistically organized social conventionalism of established Christianity.
Today, in this atmosphere, the very word and idea of asceticism is probably incomprehensible to a very large number of Christian people. Anyone talking about fasting and chastity and voluntary restriction of our individual desires is sure to meet with condescension or mockery. This does not, of course, prevent people from having their "metaphysical convictions" and believing in a "supreme being" or in the "sweet Jesus" who had a wonderful ethical teaching. The question is, however, what is the use of "metaphysical convictions" when they do not go any way towards providing a real answer—as opposed to one that is idealistic and abstract—to the problem of death, the scandal of the dissolution of the body in the earth.
This real answer is to be found only in the knowledge granted by asceticism, in the effort to resist death in our own bodies, and by the dynamic triumph over the deadening of man. And not just in any kind of asceticism, but in that which consists in conformity to the example of Christ, who willingly accepted death so as to destroy death— "trampling down death by death." Every voluntary mortification of the egocentricity which is "contrary to nature" is a dynamic destruction of death and a triumph for the life of the person. The culmination comes when man shows complete trust by handing over his body, the last bastion of death, into the hands of God, into the embrace of the "earth of the Lord" and into the fulness of the communion of saints.