I met a Hindu woman recently who told me she was looking forward to Lent. She was not a Christian but had a great love for Mother Mary and Jesus. Observing Lent in her view was a wonderful opportunity for personal renewal and a deepening of her devotion. Her understanding of this season was refreshingly lacking in any punitive sense of penance or guilt about sin.
The essential principles of Lent express a basic human intuition around the need for reduction, moderation and purification. One side of us, of course, seeks to acquire, hoard and possess. But as soon as our clutter and possessions reach a certain level we begin to find them oppressive and seek to detach from them. That’s when the struggle starts. We want to be poor and simple. But not quite yet. We enthusiastically read about the state of poverty and simplicity. We watch movies and listen to talks about it. We may do a PhD about it. But we continue to acquire and hoard and even our spiritual life becomes another aspect of this cult of desire.
The Hindu woman reminds us that it is good simply to celebrate and obey the instinct to divest ourselves of what we have, but what we no longer need. Fasting – or its modern equivalent in dieting – is a means of doing this, even while we are still secretly clinging to what we are trying to let go of. What matters in the practice is not the perfection of our efforts or our self-grading but our motivation. In dieting our motivation is likely to be our self-image – what do I feel when I look in the mirror or what do others think when they look at me. In fasting the motivation is not what we look like or feel like but the degree to which we have shed the illusions swirling around our egocentricity. In Lent our focus is on what we can never see objectively: our true self. (So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor 4:18)
What’s so special about these forty days? Aren’t we meant to be doing this every day? Yes and that is why St Benedict says the monk’s (= the meditator’s) life is a perpetual Lent. We should keep our houses clean all year; but in the Spring we give them a special spruce-up and feel better for doing so, although it’s an effort.
At the end of his forty days’ fast what had Jesus achieved? (We find it hard today to do anything without thinking we are achieving something). He felt hungry. Which was understandable. He was able to receive authentic, not false consolation. And above all he was able to distinguish without a blink of doubt or delay the difference between illusion and reality.