Americans can learn a thing or two from the Knights of Malta, particularly when it comes to self-denial and its ability to lead to personal growth.

It’s Good Friday, and if you’re a Catholic you’re probably sick of people asking why you can’t eat meat. You’re forced to either listen to a bunch of dumb jokes, or take time out of your day to explain it. If you’ve had a tough time articulating why fasting is so important—not just for religious reasons but for for personal growth—then you’ve come to the right place.

Perhaps the most eloquent passage I’ve found to date comes from The Spiritual Heritage of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, by Francois Ducaud-Bourget. (I’d link to it, but it doesn’t exist online. If you want more you’ll probably have to go to a rare books library like I did, at least for the time being.) If you’re not familiar with the history of The Knights of Malta I highly suggest researching them, the numerous works of charity they’ve done, and the work they continue to perform for the world’s sick and needy.

Regardless, Ducaud-Bourget writes:

The first means for attaining perfection offered by the Rule of the Blessed Raymond is chastity, which is the domination of the flesh and its appetites by the spirit.

For good reasons it was formerly called “continence”, a restraint which contains, which masters what is opposed to duty.

Of the three lusts of which St. John speaks the flesh is the most brutal, the most seductive, but the easiest to overcome. To dominate it, the will to do so, with the help of the grace of God, suffices. But since it is not only outside of us but also in us, because we are its unconscious accomplices, it can all the more easily charm, flatter, madden, and reduce us to slavery. Energy yields, truth fades away, before lying pretexts and more or less subtle excuses; courage is broken, and we fall. We no longer have enough strength to flee from danger, and, giving it the false name of love, we accept weakening pleasure, the always degrading sensuality. All the “muscles of the soul” are relaxed, loosened, by this acceptance; then they are atrophied by the inaction in which this disorder immobilizes the high powers of the spirit and heart. Reaction against evil becomes difficult, then almost impossible, without a kind of divine miracle. The sensual person finally finds himself completely a slave of his appetites: laziness, gluttony, or voluptuousness, a trilogy often fusing in the same individual to annihilate his real personality and suppress his spiritual, fecund, and creative virility.

Against all the forms of egotism summarized in those three capital sins, against that unrestrained love of self (or rather, against that blind hatred of self) which makes of the individual the center of the universe and sacrifices the whole world to his appetites and desires, against that monstrous caricature of real love which forgets itself in order to procure happiness for others, against the blasphemy of the self-centered flesh which sets itself up as the god and universal rule of creation, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem supposes the virtue of chastity which, strangling the interest which each person has in himself and the appeals of a nature which promises pleasure, but brings only disillusionment, affords us the real and noble joy of being our own masters and of making our own that Law we have received and heartily accepted, and finally, of accomplishing the noble and exalting sacrifices required to fulfill the Christian ideal.

Amazing stuff. To see how such teachings are applicable to everyday life all you need to do is look at Sylvester Stallone’s chiseled abs at 65, or you can look at the walking heart attacks you see at work, in retail stores, a Kevin Smith interview or…possibly in the mirror. When we improve our self-control and discipline we become a completely different person. In fact, we move closer to the person we were meant to be, because we can never reach our full potential if we don’t have control over the desires of the flesh. Don’t believe me? Ask any number of politicians caught with their pants down. Think back to your favorite musician or movie star who died too soon because of substance abuse. Ask your next door neighbor who is sure he lost the love of his life because he was unfaithful.

It says a lot about our society that abstaining from meat a few times a year for six weeks is considered an onerous task. It says even more that so many people are unfamiliar with self-denial as a means with which personal growth can be attained.

Every day I am thankful for the few short years I spent as an infantryman. Having to live and work in the field for long periods or time, deprived of life’s amenities—it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I became focused. I became serious. It was there that I learned the wisdom of self-denial, and by extension the wisdom embedded in many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. In the Army there were constant references to conditioning the body and the mind; the Catholic Church does the same thing, except it stresses that a sound mind and body will in turn feed the spirit. The Knights of Malta fused the best of both worlds, and came up with The Spiritual Heritage of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. When it comes out in print I’ll be sure to review it here.

Happy Easter,

Douglas

PS: for my non-religious readers, I’ve included a little philosophy from Tyler Durden, who it’s probably safe to say is not a Catholic character. He does seem  to know a thing or two about self-denial and humility, though.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

3 comments

  1. Take a look at the Vatican or a typical Catholic Church? See any self denial or restraint there?

    WWJD? I’d bet he would sell the Vatican and it’s treasures and feed the poor.

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