Lent is a time when we dwell on our own sinfulness and seek the grace of repentance. We should not dwell on the sins of others. Sometimes, however, they are unavoidably brought to our attention. Last week brought a new “fallen idol”: Jean Vanier, revered founder of the l’Arche community.
Vanier was hailed as an inspirational figure, even a saint, when he died last year. Revelations like this make us wonder if there are any true saints among us. There surely are, but as we begin Lent, I am wondering whether the widespread abandonment of ascetical discipline in the Church has not contributed to a situation where true virtue becomes harder and rarer.
The word ascetical comes from the Greek askēsis, meaning training or exercise. To train for the struggle against self-will by acts of self-denial was seen by spiritual writers as essential to living a morally good life.
The ancient forty day Lenten fast has gradually been reduced to a vestigial two days. Yet even this taxes our patience. When compulsory Friday abstinence was abrogated in 1966, few of us heeded the exhortation to replace it with voluntary renunciations. We pastors often hesitate before asking anything of the faithful demanding even mild inconvenience.
But what has this to do with the abuse crisis? I am not, of course, positing a direct causal link. But perhaps the widespread rejection of the need for ascesis has led to an obscuring of the need to fight against our passions. This may have compounded the human tendency to abuse power, which is at the root of the problem, and led some spiritual role models to neglect the necessary reining in of their appetites, which they rationalised as forgivable human foibles. Superiors often closed their eyes for similar reasons.
Why has mortification, literally the “putting to death” of excessive self-love, so often been seen in recent decades as unnecessary, or even harmful? Why has the deceptive cult of self-fulfilment at no cost to self (the cost will end up being paid by others) taken hold among Catholics?
The reasons for self-denial have not always been well understood or explained. Preachers in recent times tended to stress atonement for sin and the acquisition of merit. These terms contain important truths, but when used without qualification they risk obscuring the essential truth that Christ’s Cross gained forgiveness and sufficient merit for all. Taken to extremes, they can also induce neurotic guilt and scrupulosity.
The Eastern Churches see ascetical practices like fasting more as ways to gain enkrateia, self-possession or self-control. The will needs to be trained to overcome the passions, desires and appetites beyond our control, which hold it in thrall. To be free to respond to Christ by giving of oneself, one needs to possess oneself more fully.
The fact that fasting remains very much a living part of Christian life in the East suggests that this way of understanding it can be more helpful than our Western, juridical fixation on atonement and merit.
We can learn to say no to ourselves in small, everyday things, not in order to keep arbitrary rules, but freely and joyfully. Christian asceticism is not a form of self-torture, but growth in generous self-giving. Each of us as individuals, but also the Church as a whole, needs to rediscover its value.
As we struggle to deny and discipline ourselves, we will be reminded too of our weak and fallen nature. We, and those we look up to, need a long and sometimes painful process of healing and growth. None of us is santo subito, a saint straight away. All of us, under grace, are a work in progress.