I highly recommend pretty much anything that’s posted to The Other Journal, and this recent interview with Sarah Coakley about prayer is a very good one. Pay particular attention to her take on prayer and ascetic practice in our culture.
Here’s a short outtake, but read the whole thing.
You asked me what we mean by “ascetic practice.” In contemporary American culture there is a fascination with asceticism in one form—what do you think all those people are doing in the gym? We’ve developed a sternly punitive vision whereby we pummel the body for the sake of longevity, sexual attractiveness, and the denial of death. Asceticism has been marshaled into a hedonistic metaphysic. Yet I don’t think that everyone who is engaged in working out is wrongly motivated. There are certain things we can do that balance our lives, that make us feel better, and that make our relationships with others and our relationships with God better, and these are things I might call properly ascetic. At its best, I don’t see asceticism as puritanical and punitive but as a set of directives, practices, and guidelines by which we can be held accountable to God and to our various communities so that we can best serve them and best serve God.