I remember once in my place of work that, as Ramadan came around, my work colleagues were conscientious to a fault to demonstrate both their care for Muslim colleagues who were fasting and to note how impressed they were at the practice. That same year, those same colleagues, when it came out I was fasting for Lent, proceeded to tell me about the dangers of fasting, and how it was bad for you! The same actions, by two different groups, led to two different responses by progressive liberals. Don’t tell me Christophobia is not a thing. So, yes, we are going to talk about Lent.
Brothers and sisters, I would like to propose a few reflections upon the holy and great lent that we are currently participating in right now. Additionally, I want to propose a methodology by which you may ‘examine’ yourselves to see if you remain with the faith! We have previously written a similar article for Advent and proposed a different set of matrixes. The reason for this is that there is more than one way of ‘self-examination’; a principle that emerges from and towards the idea of ‘watchfulness’ within the Christian tradition. We see this captured as a major theme of Philokalia – a western work endorsed by Rome but adopted by Eastern Orthodoxy, and thus a place where Eastern and Western Christians can meet spiritually whilst being authentically true to their own traditions.
Watchfulness would translate to mindfulness in common parlance; the knowledge of the workings of our own mind and an attentive oversight thereof. This is termed nepsis in the Christian tradition; something that, if more Christians had been aware of it, we could have appealed to it when, in the UK, our government here started pushing a Buddhist-style ‘mindfulness’ in our state schools. This awareness begins with tapping into that great tradition of Christian faith; of the self-examination practised oft by most Christians before they “confess your sins to one another.” This examination of our lives plays deeply into the process of metanoia (living repentance, a continuous changing and fashioning of the inner topography of the soul). Christians like Ignatius of Loyola sought to guide his students to examine themselves twice a day. Lent is a deep examination of ourselves, a time to challenge ourselves with constant reflections and, through prayer, to cultivate the courage to change the mal habits that hold us to our sin.
However, before I get onto an actual examination, I want to share a few reflections on Lent itself. Firstly, there is no biblical command to practice it. It is a historical discipline practised by Christians from the earliest times spoken of in the Apostolic Constitutions. The evidence is clear that it was a well-established tradition of the early Church by the 4th century. It was probably an outgrowth of the custom of Christians who were to be baptised – to fast prior to their baptism and Easter had become a customary time of baptism. So, in all likelihood, one tradition led to the development of the other. Christ assumed we would fast and we know we can “serve God night and day with prayer and fasting.” So, why not forty as such Biblical precedent of the Lord’s own fast in the desert prior to the commencement of His ministry?
Also, this tradition, apart from some minor differences connected to the calendar, is a practice that could unite all Christians. A joint enterprise upon which we can all embark and journey together; sharing its trials and encouraging one another. The world could see a joint witness of the whole Church to its faith. If you have never kept the discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for Lent before, I want to encourage you – praying, fasting, and almsgiving are all Biblical. Forty is a nice Biblical number (if you are into numerology, this is one of those numbers which just keep coming up again and again), and we are free in the Gospel to do good as we please. So, why not get involved?
When more and more Christians do this, it will have an evangelistic effect. People will begin to notice that Lent is a thing. People will begin to notice as restaurants start putting ‘vegan’ on their menus for Lent or work parties begin to adapt for Christians, as they do for Muslims during Ramadan. We will find ourselves able to talk about our faith when we pass up the ‘treat’ offered at work, whether it be the chocolates, booze, or a bacon sandwich, as the people ask why. When we Christians in the west take our faith seriously, others will notice and the media will write about it! I believe a synergy of values is only a step away between Christians who go vegan for lent and a wider push by society to get us to all eat less meat for both health and environmental concerns. Should we Christians push Lent within our own community, it may well be an interface into which wider culture wishes to dip its toe, and this could create an orbit of influence into which the straying soul may fall into our well and be consumed by Christian spirituality.
Lent should not be a diet or an opportunity to give up something like a child. Lots of Christians have ‘given up biscuits’ for Lent because in the west we have developed an infantile approach to faith and spirituality. Many folks last encountered Lent through their grandparent who last encountered Lent as a child – which is why such tediously small sacrifices are assumed appropriate for Lent. I assure you, if you are a fit healthy adult, they are not! Giving up biscuits for Lent is for your children; you’re called to make a real sacrifice. Try one meal a day. Try not to eat every other day. Try going hard vegan. Lent is supposed to be a real campaign against the passions, and yes, modern things like cutting out all social media do count as hard, but these should only be added to the dietary element, as fasting is principally about food and the mastering of the body. Lent, unlike Ramadan, is not a period of feasting. Ironically, during this so-called month of fasting Muslims tend to consume more calories than they do at other times. No, we Christians must see a real reduction in what we eat.
How, then, can we examine our lives? I want to propose to you something familiar to many who go to confession as a tool to examine your own soul; one that combines Christian virtue ethics with the art of looking within, caring for the landscape of our inner being, and fashioning it. I propose you look at yourself through the following virtues:
Faith is the assurance of the things we hope for and the certainty of the things unseen; it is the act of trusting our lives to the truths we believe in. Do we believe that the next world is more important than this one? Do we believe in the judgement of our works? Do we believe in the importance of love and in the resurrection? Our lives should reflect the fact that they are ordered with certainty upon the metaphysical beliefs we claim to be true. I’ve only given a snowflake’s worth of examples to illustrate the point. Have a think, how does your life show you have faith in the truth claims of the Christian faith? Now this attitude can be misunderstood, as it is by many very new Christians. So, I would urge you not to emphasise the ‘wonders and miracles part of the faith’ but rather the values part of our faith and become familiar with them and how to live them out.
Hope is to act, as your actions can make a difference, to believe that, within rational limits, if you do x then you can indeed affect change. To act from hope is, of course, to aspire to something not yet realised, and to act in such a way that it might become a reality.
Love is that giving of yourself to the other (whoever that other might be) in some way that is sacrificial of yourself. This could be expressed in time or money, blood or energy. The point of this love is that it is the other that benefits from the sacrifice. This love ‘casts out fear’ and pushes us outside of boundaries and the places where we are not challenged. We grow in its practice through finding ways to serve one another within the Christian community. Then, as a community, we find ways to serve non-Christians.
When we take a stand for the Christian value system and try to solve the injustices of this world, such as the plight of the poor or persecuted Christian (first), we are acting justly. We need to challenge those ills that hold the Church back, to save those who are being led to death, whether it is the unborn child or the Christian confessor who will be made a martyr without our intervention. This means, of course, we must enter the fray of the world and do battle against sin, the world, and the devil; taking the Islamist, the communist, the nationalist or racist, out of his/her strong tower.
This tempers our ‘thirst for righteousness’ to prevent us from becoming unthinking zealots. It also means that we can practice love with finesse; being intelligent in our application of the action we wish to live out, not just charging in without due care and consideration. Rather, filter our passions through reason and consider that if I do X – will the result be Y or A – and act according to our best judgement to bring about the most virtuous outcome for ourselves and for others.
We know that to even think lustfully upon a woman is to have committed adultery with her; a hyperbolic statement of our Lord which has wisely counselled many an eye to look away and many a watchful mind not to dwell on it. Chastity is the practice of preserving your purity, not just in body, but also in mind. Many Christians feel they are missing out on something – because we do not go along with the sexualisation of our culture and, because of that lie then fall into sin. The author is among them; we need instead to celebrate chastity (as Christians once did) to create an effective counterculture to the over-sexualisation of our lives. This means being chaste in how we dress, what we watch, what we say, and what we think. However, and this is the sucker punch – this works best in communities that follow the Benedict option as, frankly, behaving like this without such a framework makes it hard to find a partner for life. This touches upon an issue that is not the aim of this article.
Temperance can be summed up in a single word, moderation. Do nothing to such an excess that it can hurt you. I mean anything, even prayer if you do it to an excess in which you neglect your life and do not care for it, will need temperance. Your charity giving, if you do it to excess so that you can not pay your bills, will need to be tempered. Do all things in a balance that allows all things to work together to build up life, joy, and meaning through temperance. Beautify your life so that each good thing finds its place and expression in good order. Do you have the habit of going too far? You probably need to work on your temperance.
We know that ‘perseverance builds character and character hope.’ Fortitude is needed to be a Christian that will go on when every sinew says give up, that will press forward when the dark night of the soul surrounds us, when all misunderstand us, mock us, persecute us, defame us, and slander us for our faith and beliefs. When the devil drives us to sin and accuses us of a failure when we fall into his lies – yes you are going to need fortitude pilgrim; our way of life can not boast of ease. It is for the spiritual warrior, the spiritual athletes of this world. Fortitude means that when your legs are broken you crawl forward by your nails, that you endure the slings and arrows of the devil, the world and their works. From this process, GOD will make of you a diamond that, when tested in the fire, will not be burned up, but shine like the stars, fit for its Maker!
So brothers and sisters, have a good look within. Ask yourself, where are these things operating in your life and where they are not. Start making moves to build them up; be watchful over your soul, tend to the garden of the inner man, remove the weeds and thorns that have grown in those parts of your life that you have left unattended because you were busy, and avoid the sin of acedia!