Askeo – which gives us the word ascetic – originally meant training for war but was also used to describe athletic training. A well-trained soldier who rapes and pillages or an athlete who cheats (or a businessman who acts unethically) betray the deeper purpose of their work however good they may be at it. In the same way, mindfulness used to train snipers or improve a currency trader’s performance misses the broader meaning. The larger context of the exercise has been lost and replaced by a view that is narrow and self-centred.
Whatever we do without respect for its deeper meaning turns to wormwood. But even bitter things gone through with faith in their final meaning turn sweet.
Nearly everything in the materialistic scheme of values that dominates life today becomes instrumentalised, turned into a technique which self-interest controls. People sometimes say ‘I’m really glad to have found meditation and I’m going to use it as a tool for balancing my life’. Anyway, this attitude is a beginning, a rather primitive start to understanding what asceticism means and what it is you are really being trained for. We start from where we are.
Good spiritual training reduces this attitude by achieving, quite naturally, the balance and harmony we seek. Then we notice them by surprise. These and many more benefits appear without our trying too hard to force their arrival. A lucid mind, greater and more selfless awareness, a more comprehensive ability to pay attention to others, a heart open to beauty and tenderness, to the joy in natural things and to a reduction in the compulsiveness of desire – these are fruits of the kind of asceticism we are beginning now in the lean, clean days of Lent. Some effort is needed to start, some will is called for to re-start when you fall by the wayside.
But grace is a bigger player in the process than willpower.
Where grace is allowed to enter and when it is welcomed, a sense of gift in everything will follow, subtly wound up with the wonderful ability to once again be genuinely surprised.
Turning everything into a tool, controlling all the outcomes, evaluating the results compared with the investment you are making are all eventually going to fail. Failure can be liberation from deception and a breakthrough into greater reality. But it is never easy to undergo the wrecking of your plans or the wasting of the spirit of joy that makes everything worthwhile. Asceticism helps here.
Ascetical training is not just for Lent then. The mantra is a continuous interior Lent and leads to a deeper spontaneity and sense of freshness in ordinary daily life. Prayer is the essential ascesis of the spiritual life. What you do and what you give up during the Lent cycle re-sharpens the edge of the knife that our spirit uses to cut through the dross that built up when we weren’t looking.