When I visited the Amish, I asked myself Jesus’s question about St John the Baptist
What does it mean to be in the world and not of it? This is an essential question for Lent. The Christian Humanism promoted by the Church since the Second Vatican Council has perhaps had an important role in correcting a Jansenist view of human nature and affirming that this nature retains dignity and beauty even after the Fall. But it all too easily becomes a pagan “Nothing human is alien to me” unless the measure of “human” is the Incarnate Christ, not the self-referential ideal human of the Enlightenment.
Lent centres us on Christ’s fasting in the desert and then on his Paschal Mystery. Both reveal the depth of his love and what our own humanity is called to become. In this knowledge, the Early Church consistently sought to baptise pagan culture. To baptise means to put an old order to death so that something might be remade in the image of the Resurrection. Christian engagement with culture today all too often means trying to dignify anything human with the patina of truth merely because of its subjective conviction. The approach of some pastors resembles that of Lady Bracknell when she said: “Ignorance is like delicate, exotic fruit: touch it and the bloom is gone.” We seem to respect anything which is foreign to us in proportion to our unwillingness to uphold the objectivity of the truth we hold from Revelation.
We must be detached from the world in the same way that a fish must not be out of water – because it’s the only safe environment for our thriving as a people who died with Christ and rose to newness of baptismal life in his Resurrection. This is an ontological and not merely psychological reality. Our supernatural life, ordered to a completely different set of values, will simply perish if not protected from things in the world which, though not necessarily innately harmful, are not ordered specifically to our thriving. A fish can ingest oxygen but only through water; a human can ingest grace but only through a relationship to created things which is modelled on the pattern of Christ’s humanity. Lent is preparing for our Exodus: we are to depart in haste with Christ at his command.
This involves living accordingly, as two contrasting examples last week reminded me. While attending a conference in the US, I talked to a young nun who had been given permission to leave her cloister for the symposium. “What’s a selfie?” Sister asked, and then, “What’s an Uber?” I felt envious that she didn’t know what these things were; it meant she has had no need of either. It is possible to thrive without being symbiotically attached to an electronic device.
And I made a visit to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to see the Amish. I asked myself Jesus’s question about John the Baptist: “What did you go into the wilderness to see?” and realised how easy it is to define the flight from the world merely in terms of what you give up. The Amish live in the world’s most highly developed nation but resist the blandishments of modern technology. It is not what they live for, but how they live.
It’s easy to have a sort of “low fat” approach to Lent, that is, to feel virtuous because we are gaining benefit from giving something up which will secretly allow us to continue to enjoy what it tastes like at a future date without feeling guilty. But real fasting is in order that I make a space which can be filled with something else, something other than a worldly need, and thus alter my perception of what it is I need to live in a truly human fashion.