From simple husband to ascetical priest

By Richard Cross (bio - articles - email) | Sep 18, 2014

In my previous comments on asceticism (see Addressing the Root Cause of Clerical Homosexual Behavior and Pederasty), I proposed that each bishop live an ascetical life, and by his own example and directives, oversee the ascetical discipline of his priests. Ascesis, or the practice of self-discipline, particularly for religious reasons, is a life-long task that is important for all Christians, but it is an especially necessary practice if the Catholic priest in a pagan society hopes to retain his chastity. I have long thought that the near extinction of clerical ascesis in my lifetime has played a pivotal role in the sexual upheaval enveloping the Church, its priests and its bishops.

This essay is limited in scope, providing only a sketch or illustration of what a virtuous and balanced asceticism would look like to the parish priest. This essay is not strictly defining the ascetical life, its purpose, or its relation to the other virtues. Nor does it determine whether the ascetical life can alter personality, is a habit, or merely a disposition.

Similarly, it is not my purpose here to demonstrate the necessity of ascesis in Christian living, the psychology of self-control, self-efficacy, and mental health, or the history of asceticism or its multicultural features, or how ascetical discipline helps maintain chastity, or how Christian asceticism is related to private prayer and the role of “purgation.” These are all important topics, but they are not dealt with here.

Finding a Model

This sketch simply describes what the material particulars of the ascetical life would look like in the US, or any “first world” country. This sketch also looks to the player, or person, who epitomizes the material particulars; that is, to discover these particulars, we first look for the individual who is a simple virtuous man. We are not in search of a man with extraordinary gifts, eccentricities or exceptional powers of discernment or expression. We are looking, rather, for a man who lives simply and who by example of his actions can teach us about simplicity of taste.

This individual may be the repair man who comes to your home or rectory to fix the kitchen sink. In my childhood, he was Johnny Garrimoni the Italian vegetable man. In my college youth, he was Clive Jones, the black machinist who worked the fruit sheds in the San Joaquin Valley. The simple ascetical man is there in plain sight, if we have the eyes to see him.

I think that the person we seek to discover is not common, but neither is he a rarity. He can be found in nearly every parish of the United States, except perhaps the most upscale. We briefly lay out a plan of discovery for recognizing someone who is very likely living a conspicuously ascetical life in a completely inconspicuous manner—it is after all the ascetical character to deflect attention.

There are two steps in this discovery. The first step is to define the character of the man. The second step is to illustrate the particulars of his ascetical choices. It is important to specify his character first, and then inspect his ascetical decisions, because the character is an indicator of his discretion, balance, and self-control—all factors in maintaining a balanced ascetical life:

Step One

These are the general demographic and character traits of the ascetical player or exemplar that I would look for:

  • He is young. (If he were middle-aged, he would have acquired some modest wealth that may be mistaken for not being ascetical. It is also easier to observe ascetical lifestyle in the young.)
  • He is conspicuously open to the Church’s teachings on the generation of life; he is docile to the teachings of the Church, and successfully resists the tug of pagan sensuality. He may have two, three or even four young children.
  • He is well-disciplined but not rigid. He is known as a good worker.
  • He accepts no government assistance.
  • He is not vested in a family inheritance, and must work in blue-collar jobs.
  • He is not a professional.
  • His wife is happy. Thus, he treats her well, and loves her, and is willing to sacrifice for her, making ascetical practice easier to endure.
  • His children are well-mannered and seem happy, indicating that he pays attention to their behavior, uses commonsense discipline, and that he and his wife agree on the manner of raising children.

This young man will be in the US government’s second income quintile. He makes between $20-$40k a year (in 2010 dollars), or perhaps is in the lower part of the third quintile if he lives in a large city.

Let’s call this young man “the simple husband”.

Step Two

If you are confident in knowing about what the simple husband eats, drinks, wears, drives, enjoys, and how he recreates, then you know many of the particulars of the common ascetical life. If you get this point, you can stop reading here, and move on to other important matters. But if you’re skeptical or curious, take a few minutes to consider each of seven basic facets that characterize his ascetical behavior. Any given detail is not essential but illustrative of the ascetical spirit:

  1. The simple husband is not your common metrosexual. He presents himself in a very modest manner. He has a simple haircut; there will be no body lotions or fancy deodorants or smells. Definitely no manicures. No hair salons, no hair styling, just the old-fashioned barbershop, every two months—perhaps his wife cuts his hair to save money.
     
    Showers are short, and definitely no hot-tubs or steam baths. He shaves his face, and that is all. The simple husband has no finery in everyday clothes; he might have one or two basic suits in the $200 to $300 range. The simple husband has no fine shirts, ties, jackets, slacks, or belts. If he happens to have a silk shirt, his wife fished it out of the racks at a second-hand store. Shoes and socks are basic low-end retail. All clothing is well worn, perhaps in need of minor repairs.
     
  2. The house and property are modest. It has no cable, and no large TV. The music collection is very small. The stereo is very basic. If he has an internet subscription, it is the cheapest, slowest version. His computer is low-end.
     
  3. The simple husband enjoys a limited and basic cuisine. A few PBR beers a week in the frig, but definitely no large quantities of wine or liquor, and no fine wines or expensive microbrews. Single malt or fine whisky only as a gift, and only at Christmas, Easter or a birthday. The simple husband does not make regular use of wine or cocktails before during or after dinner. The simple husband buys no fine cigars.
     
    Breakfast is simple, lunch is simple, supper is simple. Low-end cereal in the morning, or maybe eggs, hash browns, and ham, a sandwich or two at lunch, and simple meat and potatoes meal at dinner. Filtered waters or sport drinks are out. The quantity of food is not so important as is the idea that he will sometimes feel just a little hungry at the end of the meal particularly if a large tax bill is coming due. Desserts are simple, homemade pies and maybe some ice cream—never during Lent.
     
    He likes fine foods and drinks and other delicacies, but he happily accepts the fact that for him food is primarily for nutrition, and expensive tastes are just that, expensive—the money is needed for the children. He cannot impose burdens on his wife to gratify his tastes. He can never afford a four star restaurant. The bar scene is in the distant past. He and his wife might go to the steakhouse a few times a year. A fine meal is only for special occasions. Organic foods are only for medical necessity—remember, he has mouths to feed, and these health foods are very expensive.
     
    These deprivations do not bother him in the least. He simply has more important things to think about. The refrigerator is well-stocked…with milk for the kids.
     
  4. The simple husband has a simple car suitable to his job. The car is purchased used, with 75K miles; it might have air-conditioning, but otherwise the fancy accessories that break do not get repaired. Looks, horsepower, luxury items are simply not factored into the decision to purchase or maintain. He doesn't have a hot motorcycle, jeep, off-road vehicle, or power boat. His road bike he found on Craigslist—ten years old, but it rolls.
     
  5. For his house decor, think Shaker; it is plain, not plush. The bed is military style, depending upon the wife. No new carpets. No central AC—and the window units are off most of the time, and only for really humid days (set at 78-80 degrees) or when the baby must sleep. The winter thermostat is set at 60F at night and 65 or 66 during the day—this is what sweaters are for.
     
  6. The simple husband takes only a few vacations every several years, and only with his wife and kids; he never vacations without his family. The simple husband does not even comprehend the possibility of a European vacation (except maybe on his honeymoon). He may not know where to find Key West on a map. He doesn’t have a membership to the country club or the golf course. He might go fishing with his kids, and might plink at targets a few times a year at the local shooting range. He likes a pro football game…on TV...absent the cheerleaders, but never bets more than a few bucks at the office pool.
     
    The simple husband does not take sabbatical leaves, but he might stay up late into the night studying for licensing or certification tests. The simple husband hasn’t figured out yet how he can afford to send his kids to parochial school. His day off is spent repairing the house, since he can’t afford the plumber or electrician.
     
  7. The simple husband has simple hobbies, that take very little money and not too much time. His entertainment does not include most popular movies. He carefully avoids porn in the media and in the movies. He never uses foul language, and does not reinforce the use of bad language in others.

From Husband to Priest

Without knowing him personally, one might suppose that this simple husband is a gloomy stick-in-the-mud. To the contrary, he is happy. He is not jealous or envious of the wealth of others. The simple husband knows that he is called to be an instrument of God in his marriage. He places high value on his work for his family and his ability to protect and provide for his wife and children.

The physical aspects of his life are evaluated in terms of their necessity rather than their pleasures or luxury. He doesn’t fool himself into thinking that a luxury is a necessity. He likes fine things but his worth and purpose in life are not in fine things, and these are not necessary to his purpose. Honor is infinitely more valuable than stuff. But if fine things come his way and he sees that they could turn him from his family, he casts them away. He is attached to his wife and children, and little else. He is the marketing executive’s nightmare.

His consolation is in his spouse. His delight is in his children, not in his palate, his pleasures, or his toys.

The simple husband and the ascetical parish priest have a lot in common.


Richard Cross is a psychologist, teacher, and student of philosophy. He is a recurrent contributor to CatholicCulture.org.

Richard Cross is a psychologist, teacher, and student of philosophy. He is a recurrent contributor to CatholicCulture.org.
Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - Sep. 22, 2014 10:13 AM ET USA

    Before he entered the seminary, a priest was given outstanding spiritual advice that we could all follow: Find to what you are most attached and give it up (perhaps for the rest of your life). Giving up a wife was not intended. The priest was not married. The advice was more directed toward Starbucks, television, etc.

  • Posted by: aeroharp6014 - Sep. 20, 2014 11:11 AM ET USA

    The similarities between the proposed simple husband and my own beloved husband are startling. Right down to not quite figuring out how to send our 10 kids to parochial school (we homeschool now)! But I propose the simple life can be lived even if one is a professional. Mine is a published scientist and inventor, and working with the very Language God spoke to create the Universe (math and physics). It has humbled him, awed him, and dare I say, made him holier. All praise & thanks be to God.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 20, 2014 10:25 AM ET USA

    Wholeheartedly agree. From a Catholic perspective, this is a positive embrace of "poverty" freely choosing to give up/suffer, offering up what is given up" for the benefit of one's family. Fasting is definitely a part of this simple life. Balance is key. If any of those pleasures do come one's way, charity & mercy dictate how one receives the gift. Of course, anything sinful is not accepted. But then isn't this the struggle - this life for the next. "O happy fault", O happy struggle. Peace.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 19, 2014 8:31 PM ET USA

    I find a lot of the qualities unduly restrictive. Why not a professional? A parochial school teacher? A doctor serving in a poor community. Why not someone who is wealthy? It is not how much money you have but what you do with it. Wasn't St. Katharine Drexel ascetic? Amount of food consumed - Wasn't St. John XXIII, or St. Thomas Aquinas ascetic? Etc., etc., etc.

  • Posted by: Richard Cross - Sep. 19, 2014 1:57 PM ET USA

    1Jn416 thanks for the comment. The ascetical demands on the good priest are to be sure much greater than those described in my article; his motives are also more spiritual and lack the attachments of family. The simple husband is a convenient benchmark or reference for the priest in describing a minimal ascetical standard not widely practiced today; it helps too that the priest sees the simple husband at Mass every Sunday, and is a good reminder in times of weakness.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Sep. 18, 2014 3:42 PM ET USA

    Thank you Richard, this is a good start. It may be bit too dependent upon the economic realities of well-lived low-income family life, though: a man's children give him a motivation to sacrifice much stronger than a priest's parishioners or God, simply because they are more concrete and of his own flesh and blood. Too, it omits much that would truly be considered ascetical and essential for priests such as fasting. It is only a beginning. But a good one!