Not giving up anything for Lent

Occasionally, as this morning, I open Merton’s No Man Is an Island. I can only read a little — a few paragraphs or a few pages at most — lest my head explode. His chapter on Asceticism and Sacrifice seems particularly apt now at the start of Lent. A few of his remarks and my reactions:

  • If my soul silences my flesh by an act of violence, my flesh will take revenge on the soul, secretly infecting it with a spirit of revenge (p.96).
      Indeed. Like many zealous young Christians, I went through a short period, a long time ago, when I woke very early to pray. I’m not sure it was such a good idea. Why did I do it? Perhaps I was inspired by some old saints who did that. But they did that as a result of growth in their lives. They’d gotten to a point in their lives where they hungered so much for that communion with God early in the morning that they took that step. I, on the other hand, just did it because it seemed like a cool thing to do. Did I do it to brag to my friends about how early I was up in the morning praying? I hope not, but I can’t tell you today for sure that I didn’t.
  • There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God (p.96)…. Our self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all (p.101).
      This is the reason I’m not giving up anything for Lent: I don’t have a sense from God that there’s any particular thing that he wants me to. NPR had a piece a few years ago about giving up this or that for Lent. A young man talked about giving up candy or something but not having seen any results from it; he wondered if what he ought to do instead is something positive and active: adding service and charity to hsi life, rather than subtracting beer or facebook from it (paraphrasing liberally).
  • The only sacrifice He accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. (p.107)
      Perhaps I wrote or spoke too soon. Have I some habit that distracts me from loving God? Crossword puzzles perhaps, or the JumbleĀ®? H’m…
  • The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. (p.109)
      Modern life certainly does seem geared that way. By its emphasis on “productivity,” the mechanism of modern life wordlessly declares what’s valuable, and says we don’t have “enough” of it. (I put “productivity” in quotes because the things we try to optimize “productivity” of aren’t intrinsically worthwhile: lines of non-comment source statements, stock portfolio valuation, “efficiency” — in contrast with the image of productivity shown at right.)
  • Bodily agitation… is an enemy to the spirit. And by agitation I do not necessarily mean exercise or movement. There is all the difference in the world between agitation and work. (p.109)
      The Proverbs tell us that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but passion rots the bones (the NIV has “envy”). Not that we should strive to have passionless lives, or to remove ourselves from anything we might like to have, but I think Merton is telling us that when we are agitated, our bodies are distracting our spirit from what the latter should attend to. I think we’ve all experienced both situations implied here — working hard (but being at peace) and sitting still (while being agitated inside). No prize for guessing which is healthier.

So what is the secret? How do we remain at peace with the world pressing around us? Quit reading the paper? Stop watching the news? Turn off the cell phone and the email?

That’s probably good to do sometimes — as Jesus sometimes did. On the other hand, we probably don’t want to completely withdraw either; Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17:15-17) — including us, John 17:20-21: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

So we need to retreat sometimes, but we’re not to withdraw entirely. I’m sure community is important, too, but that’s for another post.

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