I notice how easily I deceive myself about physical exercise. I get into a good routine and then think I am still in it while in reality the actual practice recedes into the distance like a vanishing astronaut tumbling away into space. The first warning is that people look at you and say you look very well which usually means you have put on weight. When you lose weight people look at you and ask in a concerned voice if you are keeping well.
Lent is a time for spiritual exercise and fitness. Just as physical exercise improves our psychological state so spiritual exercise gives a renewed sense of the happy harmony that naturally exists between body and mind. I had wanted to call my new Lent book “Sensing God”, “Feeling Better” which is what I think this lovely season is about, when we re-define what is enough. Sufficiency, enoughness, is the human part of the balanced equation of happiness. Abundance, the divine gift of being, is the other.
In Latin cultures Mardi Gras and Carnevale are traditionally the last time for rampant excess before saying farewell to the delights of the flesh. In England, with less rampant appetites, we have pancakes on Tuesday to use up the eggs. It’s not the church’s role to encourage orgiastic celebrations but maybe she can point out the good side of it. After all, we know better what sufficiency means as we recover from the harmful effects of excess.
This is a time to learn to love ascesis and to see it as a way of life that should in fact be followed throughout the year. St Benedict says just this and he was not a kiljoy: ‘the monastic life is a continuous Lent’. It was John Main who helped me understand that the monastic life (like marriage or other life-callings) is meant to be free and happy and to open us progressively to a delight in the goodness of creation. This despite the inevitable pain of loss and the disappointment of failure. Somehow the gloomier side of us and our culture obscures this. Especially in a society that sees consumption as the pre-requisite for enjoyment, pleasure appears as something to be snatched and exploited. How else explain the obscenely growing divide between conspicuous wealth and the struggles of the poor? Lent challenges this. Happiness is not something that costs but something that is given and received. It is not about storing but sharing.
Training, fitness, moderate exercise. Ascesis is keeping the knife-edge sharp and fit for purpose. John Main taught me that prayer is the essential ascesis of the Christian life and this helps to understand the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus we find in the gospels.
This is not quite the same as religious practice that merely calms, consoles, and creates a feel-good moment or brief sedation. These are not undesirable qualities of life but not what ascesis means. Pure prayer (sufficient, not flabby or verbose or conceptually inflated) is a daily ascesis. It needs to be regular and leads to a surprisingly fresh, and in-focus equanimity. It is a priority, the organising principle of our daily transformation and continuous ascent to God.