But Lent is not reducible to a set of practices, and having failed to live up to our own goals is not necessarily a sign of failure. The meaning – or spirit – of Lent is to attempt to reorient our lives, and to keep up the struggle for the attainment of holiness. When we fall we must get straight back up again. The desert fathers had a word for this: ascesis. Ascesis implies the practice of self-discipline. Often to a rigorous or severe extent.
Out of this ascesis the desert fathers developed what would become the monastic life with the counsels of obedience, chastity and poverty. This would ensure a radical and lifelong commitment to self-denial. A useful comparison to spiritual asceticism is physical exercise, especially as practised by professional athletes. It is not a coincidence that Scripture references sports in this context as comparisons for continued struggle. St Paul speaks of running a race, shadow boxing and athletes exercising self-control “in all things”. Nor is it surprising that saints often refer to prayer and ascesis as a “struggle” or by alluding to sporting metaphors. St Josemaría Escrivá, to take one example, said in his collection homilies, Friends of God:
“I have noticed at times how an athlete’s eyes light up at the sight of the obstacles he has to overcome. What a victory there is in store! See how he conquers the difficulties! God Our Lord looks at us that way. He loves our struggle: we will win through always, because he will never deny us his all-powerful grace. Thus, it doesn’t matter if we have to fight, because he does not abandon us.”
Exercise is indeed a continuous struggle. One run or visit to the gym per week will hardly make considerable difference to our physical well-being. In similar fashion, virtue is developed by continuous practice. This is what Aristotle means by saying virtue is a habit in his Nichomachean Ethics. We have to persist in virtue to be virtuous, just as we need to commit to repeated exercise to stay healthy.
In a recent review for The New Yorker, Bill Haye’s new book Sweat: A History of Exercise came highly recommended. The book shows us how many have lost focus on exercise as a means of fun, and instead are focusing their attention on the wrong ends: they are building vanity muscles or pursuing longevity for its own sake. There is no longer any fun in movement. Many of us approach Lent in this way. There is no joy in the journey, in wandering into the spiritual desert and communing with God. Rather, we give up Instagram and chocolates during Lent, which makes us proud of ourselves for our self-declared austere abstentions. Perhaps this misdirected focus accounts for our repeated relapses into trivial indulgences. Giving up on Instagram for Lent is the equivalent of only exercising vanity muscles, and as it happens Instagram is often the means by which this vanity is broadcast to the world. You can exercise only your biceps, but your heart will still be weak, just as you can give up Instagram but still be attached to earthly things.
As Lent trundles on it is important for us to not lose sight of the crown of victory for which we are striving. This crown of victory is Heavenly communion with God and His saints. In our embodied state we are bound to continue our struggle, but we do so with an added spiritual end in sight. We cannot ignore our embodied state and we must take care to act according to our nature. Abstention from earthly delights and taking on added spiritual exercises to those we are ordinarily accustomed to are splendid aids in attaining our end. Yet, when these Lenten practices become mere ends in themselves we have gone off kilter. Even in the very struggle the joy and knowledge of ourselves in relation to God is highlighted. With the correct end in sight, exercise – or in this case ascesis – becomes much easier, thoroughly enjoyable, and ultimately rewarding.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund