One of the graces of Lent is the chance to grow in self-knowledge through a relatively low-risk exercising of the will. For example, you decided two weeks ago to give up something, to let go of something and to do more prayer or to do it more faithfully. If you are a marine you will have no difficulty in keeping to this regime. If you are not, you may have a more or a less well-trained will. You may therefore have already wobbled or fallen off. It is how you deal with that which will be the occasion for deeper self-knowledge.
It is probably not the greatest moral crisis of your life if you did decide, in a weak moment, to have a glass of wine, have a dessert or miss your Lenten daily reading – if any of these were your chosen ascetical exercise. What matters is how you deal with the failure of the will and whether you start again.
A young meditator who has a very modern (and healthily guilt-free) approach to discipline illustrated this for me. He believes strongly in meditation and knows how it helps him at all levels; and he sees how, through the daily discipline, grace silently builds on nature. I was surprised then when he told me that he had quit for a week. I asked why. He said that he had struggled with his meditation because he could not get rid of his expectations and demands and self-examination of his progress. This was dragging him back. He knew he should let go of it all but he couldn’t. He knew meditation is about detachment, so he decided to practice detachment from meditation – for a week. He thought this was a cool idea and, for him fortunately, it seems to have been. The desert fathers said we should not make the way to become free of the passions into a passion.
First of all, he had a very difficult week without meditation, which taught him just what a necessary and beautiful gift meditation is for him. He felt old patterns of anxiety and irritability surge back and the sense of connection weaken on all fronts. This sense of connection is the measure of meaning in anyone’s life. It arises from the connection between our surface and deeper self, from the connection to those close to us and then to those we meet as strangers or even as enemies. After this week of turbulence he resumed his meditation and found, as he had hoped, that he could practice it now with more detachment and a less anxious measuring of results.
John Main also gave up meditation in full stream, though for different reasons and for longer. He was obeying his novice master who did not understand this way of prayer. But when he came back to it, after rediscovering of his own tradition, he said he returned to meditation ‘on God’s terms, not my own’.
These examples point to the question of the self, through very particular personalities and circumstances which are perhaps to be learned from rather than imitated. This is the central question for any spiritual path. Who (really) am I? And this question is lit up by our experience of desire and the will that we usually identify with freedom. To be free is to do what we want, surely? So, the question ‘who am I?’ also means what does it mean to be free? We will continue to explore these during our third week of Lent.
(If you did fall away, why not just start again?)