Asceticism - a Lenten thought

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 25 February 2007

First Sunday in Lent, 2007

Lent is the 40 day period of preparation for Easter, that has traditionally in the Christian church been used for self examination, prayer, fasting, and reforming life habits.

Many of us here at Cityside have a practice of observing a Lenten discipline of some kind, a resolution of a change of our practice over the Lent period, with the goal of deepening our relationship to God. Generally, this change of practice takes one of two forms - giving something up, or starting something new. The 'giving up' option is about identifying and removing a block or a fence that prevents us from seeing God or getting near to God. As we 'fast' from those blocks or fences, by refusing them, or giving them up, we create a space through which God can move closer to us, and us to God.

The other option is the 'doing something new' option...the intention of developing a new habit or discipline by practicing it regularly through Lent. We do this to clear a pathway to God, by doing something that we know helps us to connect with God, such as a form of prayer. Or, we choose to develop a practice that contributes in some way to others or the world, such as a decision to cycle rather than drive to work.

Even though I value this second option of 'picking up something for Lent', and have chosen it myself for my Lenten Practice this year, today I want to talk briefly about the first one, the giving something up option. More broadly, the whole notion of 'asceticism'- the deliberate disciplining of our desires. It's not very kosher to speak like that in the modern church these days, which is partly why I'm going to.

Throughout this Lent, I'm using as a resource for sermons and services this book by Paula Huston 'The Holy Way: practices for a simple life.' It's a book that describes one woman's journey into an intentional spirituality, fuelled by insights from some of the Christian tradition's great contemplatives. It's a great book, and well worth a read.

One of her chapters is on asceticism, or disciplines of self-denial. She writes of how the early desert monks used these disciplines as a method to get to know themselves - their particular combination of 'vanities, complexes, strengths and weaknesses'. Basically, to deny ourself something that we want is a fast track to finding out what our buttons are, what drives us, and what impulses are unconsciously manipulating our choices and behaviours.

I can relate to this idea because of what I learned one year when I decided to give up wearing make-up for Lent. I can't remember why I made that decision - I think that some part of me must have realised that giving up wearing make-up would reveal some importang things to me. It was when I was teaching high school, and  I used to wear make up every day for work. It was incredibly hard to stick to my Lenten discipline. I admit that some days, I didn't. Noticing that difficulty made me realise what make-up meant for me on an internal level. It was my professional mask, my persona, my way of distinguishing home from work. But more than that, it was my only way of feeling okay about my appearance, my only way of approximating the way people look in the 'real world' of TV and magazines. Without makeup I didn't think that I was fit to be seen in public. And in a school setting, every day you have media-saturated teenagers evaluating your every change of clothing. It's hard to be 'seen' on that level. Giving up make up for Lent re-introduced me to my real face, and to the person that God made and sees and loves. And caused me to question the assumptions I'd made internally about beauty, and about what makes me an okay person. Since then, make up is an occasional choice for me - something fun, for special occasions, or just when I feel like it. But its hold over me on those internal levels has been broken.

Asceticism isn't about debasing the body, but about learning to know ourselves, and strengthening ourselves so that we are more focused on the goal of loving God, loving others and ourselves,  rather than continually attending to distracting physical and mental promptings. Especially where these promptings have more to do with our neuroses than with our real needs.

An example of an ascetic discipline that Huston talks about in her book is the literal fasting from food. Most religious traditions have a fasting dimension of their spiritual practice. It's reasonably common within Christianity to hear of people giving up some food item for Lent. I never really had much interest in this option for a Lent discipline. I couldn't see the point of giving up chocolate, or coffee. It seemed to buy into the idea that food was a 'temptation', which I think is an unhealthy way to relate to food. It's always seemed more useful to me to do a discipline that seemed more directly related to the inner or spiritual life. But after having read this chapter, I'm thinking again, and beginning to wonder about the value of fasting not just as a thing for Lent, but a regular Christian practice.

It's worth noting that of the three temptations in the desert that Jesus faced, the first one was to do with food, to turn stones into bread. This at the end point of a long period of fasting. What is this temptation story wanting to tell us about the role of food in our lives?

For those of us in the rich minority world, it's probably a value just in itself, to consider the rightful place of food in our lives. We have the luxury of a lot of choice, and the opportunity to develop certain tastes and expectations about our food. I think this is great. I love food, I love good food, I love eating meals that people have skillfully prepared with attention to fine ingredients and interesting tastes. However, I think it's important to wonder occasionally how much time and energy goes into thinking about our food - its ingredients, its origins, new things to eat and enjoy, and food righteousness - having moral stances about some foods over others. Some of that energy has to do with the justice and environmental issues underpinning the way food is produced and consumed in our world, and is therefore well spent. But how much of the way we relate to food is a luxury, that assumes choices that most of the rest of the world's people don't have? And how much of our thinking about food comes from the power food has over us... without realising it, food can be a tool that we use to work out other psychological issues of control and fear.

The wider value of denying ourselves certain meals, or certain types of food, for a time, is to help us to confront the role of greed in our lives - and not just greed for 'more', but also 'first' or 'better.' Appetite is not the same thing as need, as Huston discovered when she first practiced fasting. She says: 'my deliberate choice not to respond to [the pangs of hunger] and the fact that my body had survived just fine...was a big clue that the hunger I so dreaded was probably not even centred there, but somewhere else entirely.'

What fasting can do - and not just fasting from food, but from anything that we regularly and habitually want - is to create a small space between desire and fulfilment. This space is something that we can cultivate with practice. When we realise that we don't have to give ourselves everything we think we need, we are in some way set free from the demands of that need, and we are therefore free to focus on something we do actively choose and value. Huston quotes someone called 'de Vogüé': "a certain mastery of the primordial appetite, eating, permits a greater mastery of the other manifestations of the libido and aggressiveness.'

Desire is good. The Christian faith has been depicted as being anti-desire, and I think that's really unfortunate. I don't think that God is anti-desire. But I think that God is interested in us not being enslaved by our desires. I think that part of the Christian life is to become free from the way desire can control, manipulate and rule us, and lead us into behaviours that are destructive to ourselves and others.

When, through some small form of self-denial, we break the link between desire and the immediate action to fulfil the desire, we are reaffirming that we have choices. In doing this with a small thing,  we strengthen our capacity to choose well in the big things, where our choices have significant effects in the world around us.

Food is just one starting place. In the end, the practice is meant to lead us into a place where, through cultivating a simple life, all our choices are deliberate. The alternative is to be children in relation to the world, and not in that good way that Jesus refers to when he says that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of God. I mean the child-response where we throw a tantrum when our immediate wants are denied. We get better at moderating the tantrum behaviours as we grow up - you don't see too many adults screaming and drumming their heels into the carpet. But the tantrum impulse is there nonetheless, and can be pretty ugly when we notice it in ourselves...the insistence that things are done our way, and the manipulations and controlling behaviours we succumb to in order to make sure that they are.

Our society fuels this childishness, by scoffing at messages of restraint, and communicating to us in subtle and not so subtle ways that we are our desires, and that it is 'unnatural and unhealthy to deny ourselves anything.' For example, in our culture, it has now become normal to be in enormous debt. It's more unusual to hear someone say that they won't have something until they have saved up the means to pay for it.

As Huston says though, 'ascetical disciplines can make us aware, perhaps for the first time, of just what it is that we want and of how much time and effort we are spending to get it.' One exercise she tried for herself was to count up the number of times in a day she found herself wanting something. And she noticed how often she interrupted something she was doing in order to attend to the want. She realised that this was taking 'literally hours out of [her] days.'

The purpose of all this self examination and disicipline is not to become a big spiritual hero, and waft off into the ether purified of all worldliness. Neither is it some kind of bargain with God, where we are more effective in prayer, or get healed, or perform miracles because of our superior holiness, or even our willingness to discipline ourselves. No, the purpose of paying attention to habits of desire, and challenging them from time to time with an ascetic discipline, is to free us to love. To be released from the self-absorption of tending to our own wants, and released from reacting to our own inner, competitive drives, is to have mental space, energy, and willingess to see others and respond in love to their needs. And to have the attention to devote to the presence of God in our lives and in the world.

So, to return to Lent. While I think it's good to use the time of Lent to pick up a new habit, to deliberately practice something that draws us nearer to God, I am also coming to realise the value of self-denial. The idea of 'giving something up for Lent', might be a cliche, and lead to meaningless practice.  But if it's done in the context of learning to see the hold our desires have on us to act in certain ways in the world and to jolt us into a new perspective about our habits, then I can see the purpose of it. It might just make us more loving.

So now, we are going to engage in our 'Ash Sunday' ritual, of confession and receiving the sign of the cross in ash and earth on our foreheads. The symbolism of the ash and earth is a reminder of our mortality, a reminder that we are human, born of the earth, animated and alive only by the breath of God in us. And that by the cross, we are re-created, re-birthed in the image of Christ, into lives that are more than simply mortal, but that taste the eternity of God.