For a long time, some of which is cataloged on this blog, I was averse (to put it mildly) to any sort of asceticism or "world-denying" practice. Put simply, in the terms of one of my collegiate teachers (and now colleagues) that was dualism. And dualism is bad. How can one deny the world that God had created (Gen. 1), that He so loved (John 3), and that He is going to recreate (Rev. 21 & 22)? That and, of course, asceticism was somehow thoroughly Platonic and therefore a corruption of the purely Hebraic Christian inheritance (I knew this because I was told so; I hadn't read a lick of Plato). So, whenever I would encounter language in the Fathers or the early Christians that spoke in terms of world renunciation, I would discount it: sometimes I would discount the Father or saint who spoke it as well. They were deluded by philosophy (Col. 2:8), I said, and since I didn't want to be contaminated by such things (for, of course, I was free of such philosophical influences), I must reject them.
This led, as I've spoken about before, to my statement that "either the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church since the days of the Apostles, or He has abandoned me."
What I didn't understand, though, was the purpose behind denying the world. What I didn't understand, though, was the necessity of denying the world. What I didn't understand, though, was that to love the world, as Christ loves the world (John 3:16), required that I follow the path of Christ to crucifixion. One can only inherit the world, can only be meek, if one "daily takes up the cross, denies himself, and follows [Jesus]". But, why?
Part of my problem was that I thought sin was the problem: sin understood as the breaking of God's divine Law, codified in the Torah, for which I stood condemned. While this certainly is a problem, it isn't the problem. Sin can be taken care of through repentance. All the Scriptures assume this, even Leviticus, which is arguably the most concerned with the effects of sin in the context of blood sacrifice. Repentance, of course, is a good and necessary thing (as I've argued here before). But, there is something more than moral rebellion happening in the world. How do we account for the "righteous pagan"? The person who, even if they outwardly hate Christ, act more like Christ than many Christians (especially oneself), especially in light of Matthew 25 (note that the "sheep" don't know they served the Master)? There is something more that I had missed. To deny the world because sin was the main problem would be to say, ultimately, that the world was inextricably tied to sin. The whole creation would be totally depraved, to use some old Calvinist terminology. This would lead straight to dualistic Gnosticism.
What I had missed, though, was the fundamentally ontological problem that man is faced with: he is dying. Sin is a problem, but the broken moral relationship between God and man can be healed through repentance (assuming, of course, God's mercy at the outset); yet we still die. "For dust you are and to dust you shall return." Since Adam was the "federal head" of the world, all the world inherited death. Adam was the mediator of Life to the world, his original task was incarnational in a way. His communion with God, at the Tree of Life, was not only Life for him, but Life for the world. He failed at that task, bringing death into the world and corrupting everything with possible non-existence, a detachment from the source of Life. Biology isn't a closed system: it depends on connection to a Life that is not bound by finite necessity. All things fall apart because they are finite, but that does not mean they were created to fall apart. They, all things (Eph. 1:10), were created to partake in God's Life. All things, instead, share in death. Our communion with them, even though necessary to sustain bodily existence (food, drink, shelter, sex, work, rest), is either a communion with non-existence or a communion with God through Christ.
Why deny the world then? Because we are carriers of death in a world that is dying without Christ. We deny the world, we fast, we abstain, we "mortify" because we know -- from the sacramental example of Christ -- that Life for the world only can come when this creation dies. Christ, the Life of the world, had to die -- to take on the penalty of Adam's choice -- so that it could be defeated. For how could death hold onto Life Himself and whatever He had united Himself to? This is how Christ defeated death by death. We participate in that victory by following the same path: we are baptized into His death so that we might walk now in the newness of Life that is communion with Him. But that means we cannot hold tightly to the world as it now is, but instead look forward to the end goal when all things are gathered up in Christ's Life (Eph. 1:10) and God is "all in all" (1 Cor. 15). To hold tightly to the things of this world now means we desire to keep our communion with death. We recognize our current need of them to stay biologically alive, but we cannot let them become (or remain!) our masters, for they are being used by a malevolent power that seeks only death for all things (it even went so far as to crucify the Lord of Glory). We will inherit the earth, the earth filled to the brim with God's Life, as we let go of it in its present state. Let no thing be your master but God. Love the world so much that you will die to it.