American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
- n. The principles and practices of an ascetic; extreme self-denial and austerity.
- n. The doctrine that the ascetic life releases the soul from bondage to the body and permits union with the divine.
- n. Devotion to and pursuit of the beautiful; sensitivity to artistic beauty and refined taste.
- n. The doctrine that beauty is the basic principle from which all other principles, especially moral ones, are derived.
One the original reasons for practicing austere self-denial was man’s desire to be able to give birth. Oriental myths said the first creator-gods acquire their ability to produce living things by “practicing fierce asceticism for ten thousand years.” Although men were never able to acquire the female ability to give birth, they have claimed the abilities to fly, walk on water, heal the lame and blind, and perform other miracles. Asceticism in its broadest sense is man’s practice of renunciation of his physical self and world in order to attain a higher ideal or spiritual good; in summary, it’s the renunciation of the physical, which has been deemed of lesser worth, for the spiritual. This has been the teaching of most cultural and almost explicitly all religious training. It is true almost every society from the primitive to the most sophisticated teach some type of asceticism to teach self-control that is expected from its members without which the society could not exist. 
The word aesthetic brings to mind images of indulgence, glamor and the creative pursuit of beauty. When taken to the extreme, it becomes a cult-like following; we become slaves to beauty, remaining ageless and the desire to have all of the latest goods and technology. This can lead to a whole host of problems; working longer hours to buy more things to have a “better life”, debt, never satisfied with what we have, feelings of depression and lack of self-worth because we may have had to be “lazy” and “settle for less”. People suffering from the pursuit of the aesthetic lifestyle are usually chronically tired and when they do have some free time, they veg out in front of the TV or computer. Where is there time for the Goddes? It is a lifestyle that is inhospitable to developing any type of social, family or spiritual bonding. It is the polar opposite of asceticism; where asceticism is devoting oneself to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment through sacrifice of earthly pleasures, aestheticism is the pursuit of earthly beauty and pleasure through sacrifice of spiritual enlightenment. What does this mean to the modern Pagan? How and can we find balance?
Think about what you do in your daily life. Do you feel satisfied, content and fulfilled? Or does it feel imbalanced, like that there’s something amiss? Where does your spiritual practice fit into your myriad of events that must fit into your daily life? Do you take your spirituality seriously and actually live it using it to filter your thoughts and actions? Are you a “Play-gan”, one who likes the idea of being Pagan or different just to piss people off? Are you a Festival Pagan, only coming out to partake in Sabbat celebrations? If it sounds like I’m making stereotypes or judgements, believe me, I’m not. I understand that everyone is at different points on their own path. These are just some very serious and hard questions one must ask themselves if they are serious about their spirituality. If you find that you are experiencing suffering in some area of your physical life, perhaps your spirit is asking you to look deeper in your search for what you want. If you find yourself suffering or lacking in your spiritual life and in establishing a relationship with the Goddes, perhaps its time to take a closer look at asceticism.
As many Pagans consider pleasure to be sacred, asceticism is often seen as unfriendly to Pagan practice. However, as many Pagans view life as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth and follow the Wheel of the Year, perhaps it is appropriate to have times of fasting and times of feasting. Certainly many Pagans fast before rituals (in order to make the connection with the Goddes more effective) and feast afterwards (to ground themselves). Sacrifices must be made somewhere in order to gain something in return. We can’t expect things to just be handed or given to us. One cannot gain knowledge from a book just by placing it on their head by osmosis. You have to sacrifice and dedicate time to sit down and read that book. Sometimes you have to roll your sleeves up, dig your hands down into Mama Earth and get dirty sometimes. You have to venture out into the deep woods to gain hands on knowledge of how the trees, rocks and earth look and feel or how the river sounds and feel how strong the current is.
While I’m not advocating in any way extreme forms of asceticism such as wearing a cilice, developing an eating disorder, keeping your arm raised above your head for a year, or selling off all of you and your family’s worldly possessions, I am saying that a balance must be found. I believe that a temporary retreat, fast or sacrifice is good for the soul. A time of deficiency can truly be a spirituality awakening experience. Many Pagans are now finding attractive the idea of temporary or even permanent retreat from the world in order to practice contemplation and find renewal. There is even a newly formed Pagan monastic order, the Order of the Horea (currently in it’s infancy) that intends to focus on living together in spiritual community and observing an immersive routine of meditative work, ritual and prayer.
I believe that once one has recognized the realm of spirit, had that “Aha!” moment, learned an important lesson that the Universe has been trying to teach you, or made that connection with the Goddes, we remember to hold onto it and celebrate it. There is no reason to dwell in poverty or emotional isolation once an important connection has been made. We then may start to see the beauty in all things and develop a healthy sense of aestheticism. We gain a greater appreciation and thankfulness for what we do have instead of dwelling in sorrow and jealousy for the things that we don’t have. We see the beauty in nature, we see the beauty in connectedness, we see the beauty of humanity…we see beauty in all things, whether simple or complex. We gain a greater understanding of balance and meeting in the middle.
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches.
If suffering alone taught,
all the world would be wise,
since everyone suffers.
To suffering must be added
mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness
and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh