In her campaign against the use of drugs among youth, First Lady Nancy Reagan has adopted the motto: "Just say No!" If put into practice this strategy would be most effective. As they say, preventive medicine is the best cure. And this motto could he applied to any number of our society's ills. Promiscuity, for example. Some years ago Solzhenitsyn offered the same prescription on a broader scale when he spoke of the need in our country for voluntary self-restraint. It may be applied universally if we consider that a lack of self-restraint is central to the problems of human nature. Was not the Fall caused by Eve's failure to 'just say No'?
we may have no problem saying no to drugs or other such obvious vices. But if we
examine our spiritual lives we shall see that we are plagued by the same
permissiveness and self-indulgence which characterize our society, a
permissiveness which has eroded our willpower and our ability to say
Nothing helps men so much as to cut off self will for thereby a man prepares the way for nearly all the virtues. Abba Dorotheus
Abba Agathen, one of the Desert Fathers, said that there is nothing more dangerous than self-indulgence, for it prepares the ground for all the vices. Its opposing virtue is self-denial. A more recent Holy Father, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, wrote: "The chief reason why so few people attain to full Christian perfection is exactly their reluctance, through self-pity, to force themselves to deny themselves." Yet this is precisely what Christ requires of His disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself... (Matt. 16:24). This is the basis of that asceticism which is essential to true Christianity.
Many people associate asceticism with ancient cave-dwellers and pillar saints, with severe fasting and self-mortification, as something proper to monastics but certainly not the business of the ordinary layman. Of course, there are those who have the grace and determination to ascend the heights of asceticism which we, in our weakness, shall never attain. Nevertheless, whether we be priest or layman, man, woman or child, we are all called to be Christ's disciples and therefore to walk upon the ascetic path of self-denial.
How does this translate practically into daily life? Tito Colliander, in his spiritual classic Way of the Asectics, explains:
"The Holy Fathers' counsel is to begin with small things, for, says Ephraim the Syrian, how can you put out a great fire before you have learned to quench a small one?... It does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small "innocent' weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling .... If you have the urge to ask something, don't ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don't look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!"
Only when we begin exercising our wills in this way do we come to realize the extent of our self-indulgence and the need to train ourselves in saying "No." Not only to that which is clearly evil or unlawful, but to anything which feeds our self-indulgence, anything which distracts us from "the one thing needful," anything which prevents us from drawing closer to God.
How often, for example, do we find ourselves absent-mindedly scanning magazine covers as we wait in the check-out line at the supermarket? Or skimming the sports page of the newspaper--even if we're not really interested? How often do we flip the TV channels just to see "what’s on"? We are surrounded by a world of superfluous stimuli whose flashing images imprint themselves on the mind in a fraction of a second, without our even being aware of it, only to pester us the moment we stand for prayer. We must learn to say No to perennial distractions and useless daydreaming. If our mind is unoccupied, we should draw it into the Jesus Prayer or into an edifying book, or engage in some other spiritually constructive activity--a mental review of the day's Gospel reading, for example.
Advertising offers another barrage of stimuli, purposely tempting the consumer to buy, buy, buy. Shopping is no longer a matter of necessities; it has become a past-time. Curb your self-indulgence. Make it a rule: If you don't need it, just say No--and use the money you would have spent on frivolities for alms.
Good habits are much easier to inculcate at an early age. Parents, therefore, should also train their children in the art of self-denial, assuming the burden of saying "No" themselves until the child learns to recognize his own selfish desires and enters the battle to overcome them. Permissive parents, afraid of the word "No," allow the child to be ruled by his self-will and make it more difficult for him later on in life when he begins to consciously wage spiritual warfare.
writes Colliander, "it is just this 'self-persecution' on which your
warfare depends, for as long as your selfish will rules, you cannot pray to the
Lord with a pure heart: Thy will be done. If you cannot get rid of your
own greatness, neither can you lay yourself open for real greatness. If you
cling to your own freedom, you cannot share in true freedom, where only one will
reigns." This is the freedom that comes in learning to say "No".
A man "takes a little walk and sees something. His thoughts say to him: 'Go over there and investigate and he says to his thoughts 'No! I won't ' and he cuts off his desire. Again he finds someone gossiping and his thoughts say to him 'You go and have a word with them.' and he cuts off his desire and does not speak. Or again his thoughts say to him 'Go and ask the cook what's cooking?' and he does not go but cuts off his desire. Then he sees something else and his thoughts say to him 'Go down and ask who brought it?' and he does not ask A man denying himself in this way comes little by little to form a habit of it so that from denying himself in little things he begins to deny himself in great without the least trouble. Finally he comes not to have any of these extraneous desires but whatever happens to him he is satisfied with it as if it were the very thing he wanted. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza