Review: On Liturgical Asceticism

Courtesy of Baker Publishing
Courtesy of Baker Publishing
Courtesy of CUA Press

Editor’s Note: Over the course of this next week, and before regular posting resumes on 20 January, we will be posting several book reviews. “Take up and read!”

David W. FagerbergOn Liturgical Asceticism. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013, xix + 246 pp.,£26.95/$29.95, paper.

Barthians beware! On Liturgical Asceticism impassions the reader to embrace the Christian life of asceticism. Asceticism, according to Fagerberg, is the necessary preparation for synergistic participation in the Divine life of the Trinity. Fagerberg, Associate Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, writes with clarity, although not systematic clarity, and wit. As a liturgical theologian he has been greatly influenced by Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh, yet he has also published on Chesterton, and all three influences are obvious in his content and form.

What is liturgical asceticism, or for that matter what is liturgical theology, and why do we need liturgy and asceticism to do theology?

In the first chapter, Fagerberg provides a rich image of liturgy: “‘To swim’ is a verb, ‘swimmer’ is the noun; ‘liturgy’ is a verb, ‘Christian’ is the noun. Liturgy is the verb form of the ‘Church’ and ‘Church’ is the noun form of ‘liturgy’.”[p. 1] Where does asceticism fit in this image? Asceticism is the training we do in order to swim better. Theology is what happens when we are immersed in the water, participation in the divine life of God. This synergistic participation in the life of God–one’s answer to God’s call–is based on God’s act and actions of grace.

Christian asceticism is rooted in an anthropology set out by the Desert Fathers. In line with Greek philosophy, the Fathers maintained that there are three human faculties: 1) intellective (a person can think); 2) irascible (a person can be moved to act out of ire); and 3) concupiscible (a person has appetites that generate desire). In the right hierarchical order these faculties are good. The intellective must be ruled by God, and the other two faculties must be ruled by the intellective. The malady (ch. 2): Satan overturned the ordering and now man is ruled by the passions. The passions destroy the heart and upset our liturgical posturing. They “prevent us from doing the world as it was meant to be done (liturgically), and from receiving matter the way it was mean to be received (sacramentally), and from governing creation the way it was meant to be administered (sacrificially).”[pp. 30-31] The passions are thus “pathologized” emotions. Fagerberg repeatedly makes clear that asceticism is not a rejection of the material world. Matter, including the body, is good; it is our misuse of matter that is the problem.

Askesis removes the chains (passions) so that we can run unfettered into the arms of God; asceticism is the cure (ch. 3). It is born out of the unquenchable thirst for God and is possible through Christ. Christ set the pattern–the cross precedes the resurrection–and Christ makes the ascetical life possible via the sacraments. Apatheia, the state of a proper ordered soul, leads to joy (ch. 4), for in this state one begins to see and experience the world aright. “The passions had turned us away from God, and we had become disoriented; apatheia consists of being reoriented: turned back to the East, to the Eucharistic altar. Liturgical asceticism is liturgical realignment.”[p. 130]

Fagerberg argues that both monk (the superhero of asceticism) and laic have the same end, share in the same baptism, and live in the same hope (ch. 5). They are empowered by the same sacraments and the same Spirit. However, each is given a different road. The end of liturgical asceticism is to be conformed to Christ. What does this look like? The Virgin Mary: “she possesses the liturgical splendour of an ascetically conformed person.”[p. 190]

Consistent with the tradition of the Church, Fagerberg aims to restore asceticism to its rightful place within liturgical theology. It is a rich journey through Chestertonian style, paradox and prose, and dense with wise quotes from the Desert Fathers. In the appendix he leaves the reader with ninety-nine reflections to ponder, a pattern mirroring the monastic ascetical texts which often consisted of one hundred snippets of traditional wisdom strung together. Fagerberg leaves us one shy of a century; perhaps the last one is for the reader to complete once she has journeyed deep into the desert of liturgical asceticism.

Review by Andrew TJ Kaethler


  • Dr. Andrew TJ Kaethler is Assistant Professor at Catholic Pacific College where he teaches theology and philosophy (or anything remotely related). He completed his PhD in 2015 at University of St Andrews.

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