Lent starts tomorrow — rethink discipline

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

I’ve noticed a few people recently expressing their concern about the usefulness of Lenten disciplines. For some, rather than turning their hearts towards Easter, their Lenten discipline just makes them grumpy, and then Easter becomes a gluttonous, fleshly indulgence in whatever it was they had given up. Or they notice no perceptible increase in virtue (although, perhaps, moodiness).

So, really, what’s the point? Why engage in a Lenten discipline?

In the film Into Great Silence (La Grande Silence) the monks talk only once. The film is about the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse, monks (technically hermits in community; what Byzantines would call a lavra) living in perpetual silence. Except once a year. Then they get to talk. All I remember is that there was some conversation about hand-washing, and one of the monks says,

‘Perhaps the problem is not with the tradition but with ourselves.’

This is a very humble approach to spiritual inheritance — what one would expect from Carthusians.

Perhaps the problem isn’t with Lenten disciplines but with how we engage in them.

To take the example of coffee. People give up coffee for Lent quite frequently. They crave it and find it annoying and go through all the symptoms of chemical withdrawal. By Easter, however, they should be free of the habit. But many people brew their first cup of coffee that Easter morning and start the cycle all over again. What, they feel, was the point of Lent?

I have two thoughts concerning this. First: Whenever you crave that coffee, think on Jesus. If you get a headache because of withdrawal, consider that Jesus got a headache because of a crown of thorns. You are suffering a voluntary abandonment of an unnecessary pleasure you engage in voluntarily. Christ, although voluntarily saving us, died. Your tiny, little suffering is a smidgeon of a taste of a teaspoon of the suffering of God the Son on the Cross.

Remember that fact all of Lent, regardless of discipline. Annoyed at the extra time taken up by reading the Archibshop’s Lent book? Craving some chocolate? Extra hungry during a Friday fast? Remember that Christ died for you. That you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then thank Him for His sacrifice, Who died that you might live, Who trampled down death by death.

Second: Use Lent to be a kickstart to a more disciplined life, anyway. Monks don’t really need Lent — they already live in a more disciplined way than us. When Easter comes, they can, what, eat meat once a week again? If they even eat meat. On Easter morning, don’t make that brew. Maybe, if you enjoy the ritual of coffee that much, start drinking de-caf. Think on it.

This leads me to my final thought, which is rethink what sort of discipline you do this year. I’m not giving up anything. Instead, I’m going to use this focussed, forty-day period in which so many of us do more than usual to do as much as I wish I did usually — a weekly fast and daily morning prayer. And hopefully I’ll continue for years beyond Sunday, April 4, 2015.

What disciplines might you kickstart this Lent?

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5 thoughts on “Lent starts tomorrow — rethink discipline

  1. Thank you for this reflection.

    For me, the Lenten disciplines are a way to join the Holy Spirit in intentionally bringing me into contact with what secretly controls me – my passions. The autopilots that hinder transformation. The disciplines, because they disturb the autopilot settings, bring up to the surface my true condition and give me, in grace-filled cooperation with the Holy Spirit, the opportunity to have the lizard killed/crucified (see The Great Divorce). The disciplines drive the lizard out into the open.

    And, for me, the Lenten disciplines are essentially linked with an increase of love. They are not ends in themselves. They are not an exercise in spiritual athleticism but in humility for the sake of increased love. Without love as the fuel and the fruit, they are in vain and an exercise in disciplined vanity.

  2. Good post. I agree, if there’s not a point to fasting, it’s just going to be an annoyance. I’m not good at fasting. I find it difficult and frustrating. I started out small with Lenten fasting though, and even thought it wasn’t a real sacrifice or in any way an echo of Christ’s suffering, the little things I chose to avoid were a routine reminder to think on Christ, and that did help prepare my heart for Good Friday and Easter services. I think even those of us who lack the discipline for regular fasts (for now, anyway) can benefit from using Lent as a season of spiritual preparation, and as a time to practice fasting, in hopes of growing spiritually. And I like to remind myself every once in a while that Easter is a time of grace, and if I slip up one day, God forgives, and I can always start fresh instead of giving up for good.

    • Hey melidaws,

      Glad you like the post! The reminder of grace is vital — it’s grace that enables us to be virtuous or disciplined in the first place, so we should never give up for good! We can always, as you say, start fresh.

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