“We must, therefore, gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.”
You may have seen people walking around with ash on their foreheads last Wednesday. This, of course, was not a result of the Georgetown community forgetting en masse to wash their faces that morning. It was part of the celebration of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season, in which Catholics typically take on one ascetic practice or another in preparation for Easter.
Lent memorializes the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his Passion, and precedes the Triduum, three days commemorating the Last Supper (Holy Thursday), Jesus’ crucifixion (Good Friday), and his resurrection (Easter). Just as Jesus fasted for 40 days, so, too, are Christians called upon to fast. We abstain from meat on Fridays and either give up some favorite snack (hopefully without unduly burdening Snaxa) or add a daily devotional such as a prayer or mass.
I must confess, however, that Lent has always been perplexing to me. It is meant to be a preparation for Easter, but what is there really to prepare for? Of course, Easter morning I’ll comb my hair and put on a nice shirt for mass, but do I really need 40 days?
Giving up chocolate is a common Lenten sacrifice. Yes, it’s hard when your Thin Mints finally show up the day before Ash Wednesday, but surely the sacrifices of a dessert-ascetic are a sufficient preparation for Easter?
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer of the 20th century, changed my perspective on sacrifice. To give up and abstain from certain pleasures during Lent is not about trying to be a spiritual heavyweight. It might be uncomfortable to pass up meat on a Friday, but if the Stations of the Cross—the series of images depicting the crucifixion—tell us anything, is it not that this season was made possible by a suffering far greater than what I suffer by abstaining from bourgeois comforts?
In No Man is an Island, Merton wrote, “The saint, therefore, is sanctified not only by fasting when he should fast but also by eating when he should eat.” In other words, Merton rejects an asceticism that is merely flesh-deep, that is, an exercise in physical or mental toughness for its own sake.
Merton also warns against becoming a self-referential ascetic who focuses solely on the cares and concerns of the self: “They have tried to become spiritual by worrying about the flesh, and as a result they are haunted by it. They have ended in the flesh because they began in it, and the fruit of their anxious asceticism is that they ‘use things not,’ but do so as if they used them.”
What is crucial for Merton is that we do not simply practice sacrifice for self-improvement, or to instill good habits. Giving up must become a sacrifice, a giving up to God. This sacrifice, moreover, can become part of “the total offering of ourselves to God in union with the sacrifice of Christ.” When our Lenten commitments are sacrificial, they become more than just an exercise in self-discipline or spiritual endurance. They help us to become closer to and more intimate with God.
This is not to say that giving things up for Lent is shallow, but rather that it must be part of a sacrifice of ourselves to God if it is to exist on a higher plane than a New Years resolution. Even something as simple as giving up chocolate will help prepare for Easter, if it is part of a “spiritualization of our whole being through obedience to His grace.” In obedience to God’s grace, moreover, we will be able to break out of our own self-interest and expand our perspective.
Of course, Merton’s words are not relevant only to those who have been raised or baptized Catholic. Throughout Merton’s No Man is an Island, Merton calls us out of ourselves, and in particular, to improve ourselves not for our sake, but for the sake of something greater. This message resonates well with one of Georgetown’s Jesuit values, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.”
So give yourself up for Lent. This message came to mind when I read Merton on sacrifice. Each morning, we prepare ourselves for the day ahead. But for Easter, it is more than a matter of combing your hair and brushing your teeth.
Easter is the celebration of a supernatural event—Christ’s rising from the dead for the redemption of mankind—and so it makes sense that it would take more than a month of untangling ourselves from earthly attachments to achieve what Merton calls “a supernatural perspective.” It is with this perspective, attained after careful and prayerful obedience to God’s grace, that we will be able to understand the gravity and significance of Lent and Easter.