Lenten Asceticism

People are free to do what they feel to be best, but we were warned by the Gospel of Ash Wednesday – keep it to yourselves and don’t broadcast that you are being holier than thou! Christ is most categorical about this principle. We don’t engage in spiritual practices to impress others! It is the same with prayer. It is best to pass for someone who isn’t at all religious but whose spirituality is secret and above all genuine.

Fr X and Mr Y often have their favourite whatevers to share with the world, and most of us just don’t care. We go without a certain kind of food, drink or pleasure. I greatly appreciated something my Bishop said a short while ago – Instead of giving up something for Lent, why not take something up? The whole idea of Lent is to relive the Catechumenate of the early Church as adult converts prepared for Baptism. The programme reflects the stage of conversion and baptism. Everything begins by our being conscious of our own mortality and then overcoming the fear of it by meditating on the issues of temptation, divine light, being delivered from evil spirits all the way to considering human wickedness through the two Passion weeks. We get a refresher course every year and thus renew the Christian commitment we made at our Baptism.

Yes, we can give money to this or that charitable cause, yet we are fleeced by taxes and social contributions. Giving to the bureaucracies of charity is no longer optional, at least since the late 1940’s under the threat of a Communist revolution. When we are bled dry for hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the increasing amounts of money needed for illegal immigrants (some of whom are vowed to taking us over) who will never do a day’s work – and old age pensioners who will have more of a dolce vita than we late boomers will ever have, the endless yammerschooner appeals and outstretched hands sound hollow. The cows are milked dry.

Probably, the best thing for many of us is to have quiet times and take a book with us – the Bible, apocryphal and patristic writings or works of more recent theologians and spiritual men. A part of our Christian life is becoming better instructed and learning, and therefore being able to reflect and take a critical point of view – in order that our faith may be more pure and altruistic. I suspect that my Lent this year will be taken up in trying to figure out something of the subject on which I wrote yesterday, what happens to us when we die. The evidence is heavily in favour of consciousness continuing in some way after the dissolution of the body. The question is how. Quantum mechanics gives us some idea of the consciousness and life experience being divided into discrete units called quanta, and without the DNA or organisms to organise it all, it is just a pile of random fragments. Do these fragments form part of the whole of God and the universe, or do they find a new incarnation elsewhere, not necessarily in this world or universe, perhaps another? To us Christians, reincarnation or at least the popular concept of it is a heresy. Truth to be told, we just don’t know. I think we do need to look at various scriptures outside our Old and New Testaments, especially Nag Hammadi and the Bhagavad Gita. We also have the Greek philosophers and modern science which takes an ever-increasing distance from Newtonian materialism. The sources are rich, but what will we make of them? Will we find more than book knowledge?

I might seem to be very complicated, and struggling at the bit! I have the soul of an explorer. I will explore some things in my boat or on foot, but the real uncharted territory is the spiritual world and the things that lie outside our experience. Each Lent, I try to push a little further and get closer to understanding things.

For the first time since my childhood, I had a dream of World War III last night. One brief part was being in a building and being warned that an atomic bomb was about to explode. You “duck and cover” as they used to instruct Americans in the 1950’s. You protect yourself from the bomb’s light and searing heat, and then in some way from the blast wave. You may have some chance of doing so if you are some tens of miles from where the thing goes off. Any nearer than that and you are instantly vaporised! Then there is the fallout which we could probably never escape. In my dream, there was only the flash, the bang and the hurricane winds. Then I was transported to a warship and a naval battle – but the ship was sunk by a torpedo and I awoke as I was nearing the possibility of jumping into the sea with the other surviving crew. There is probably very little to make of it, except the fact I am becoming as frightened as during the Cold War of my childhood. Each day at Mass, I pray for peace in the world without trying to judge who the enemy is. Actually, in a modern war, the true enemy is war itself. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Has this world become the hell we all fear?

Perhaps during this Lent, we may be able to overcome our fear and undergo the true κένωσις of Christ in his Passion. How do we overcome our fear of death without literalising the many allegorical narratives out there? Does it really matter that we continue to be the same person we are now, or a jumble of fragments that can get reorganised elsewhere in something bigger than ourselves? And much better? I’ll do the best I can to do some serious reading and feel that I have really achieved something by Easter. Each to our own… We think differently and are attracted by different ideas and realities. I would not dare to tell someone how to make a good Lent.

Perhaps if other people think we have made a mediocre Lent, then we will have kept the secret and made some real progress.

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3 Responses to Lenten Asceticism

  1. Thank you, Father, for this fruitful posting. In short, what is common to East and West about Lent is a redoubling of one’s efforts at prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, with more than a nod toward spiritual study, as shown in the Scriptures and the Tradition, starting (of course) with Psalm 1. And we have also been told that all of these things should be done in secret, so that we may gain our reward for doing them from Our Father above, rather from the esteem of humankind.

    Perhaps the best thing to do, rather than focusing on what we are doing, is instead to encourage one another as regards good things to do. If I recall correctly, St. Philip Neri was successful in spurring on his students by continually asking, “How might we do good today.”

    And for my part, if you, Father, could tell me something about the lenten tradition in the Sarum Use, I would for one very much appreciate it.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A book that I found very rewarding is R.C. Zaehner’s Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1957). (I’ve also read around a bit in his selection of Hindu Scriptures (Dent ‘Everyman’ Library, 1966); I do not – yet – have a copy of his translation of The Bhagavad Gita “With commentary based on the ancient sources” (1969), but have the impression that he would always be worth ‘bringing into the picture’ in embarking on reading such great Hindu works.)

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve been wondering about Lenten reading – today I got Dom Illtyd Trethowan’s Mysticism & Theology: an essay in Christian metaphysics (1975) down and will finally embark on at least giving it a try…

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