Making the Most of Lent
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP offers some tips for our Lenten observance.
Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP is Archbishop of Sydney, Australia. During the early 1990s he lived at Blackfriars, Oxford, while working on his doctorate under Prof John Finnis. He is now an Honorary Fellow of Blackfriars Hall.
‘Asceticism’ has been defined as ‘extreme self-denial and austerity’. That sounds distinctly scary! It calls to mind some gaunt figure living in a desert cave, dressed in an animal skin – or nothing at all – scratching himself with a rock and who has only a pet lion or crow for company. Or a grim-faced aunt who strongly disapproves of ‘sin, the flesh and the Devil’ and who equates these with alcohol-fuelled parties, the internet, and modern dancing (an equation which is perhaps not wholly unreasonable). On this view the holy ascetic is someone who renounces all the fun things of life and approaches it through gritted teeth. However, there’s another, properly Catholic, view of asceticism, and Lent is just the time to recall its virtues.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that, if God is good, anything He creates is good – and that must include the world, the body, eating, drinking and the rest… When Christians engage in temporary penances or life-long renunciations they recognise – or should recognise – that what they are giving up is good in itself and they should only give it up for the sake of some greater good.
Indeed you might say Catholicism is, by nature, a high-cholesterol religion. We delight in our cosmos and in the fact that God not only created and sustains it, but joined it forever through the Incarnation. We celebrate Christmas with twelve days of feasting and Easter with fifty! As Hilaire Belloc rhymed: ‘Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine.’ St. Thomas was not known for his thin waist!
But we should not let go of asceticism altogether. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which means ‘practice’ or ‘exercise’, like an athlete training for success in sport. Like present-day Australians, the ancient Greeks took their sport very seriously. They invented or perfected gyms, stadiums, the Olympics and many sports we still play today.
Some priests work their favourite sport or team into homilies from time to time; Pope Francis is so inclined himself. Likewise St. Paul used the idea of wrestling or running to describe the Christian life and he compared heaven with the wreath or trophy given to the winner (e.g. 1Cor 9:24-7; 2Tim 2:5; 4:7). But only practice makes perfect, and Paul recognised that practice in the spiritual life includes some self-denial. Lent is practice for Easter. It is when we go into training as Christians. It is our spiritual fitness regime.
Instead of sports diets, exercise regimes and performance-enhancing drugs, we are offered fasting, prayer and almsgiving as our programme, our askesis. Only a few weeks from now, at Easter, the competition begins. We will take our Olympic oath by repeating our baptismal promises, and we will run into the stadium of the world wearing Christ’s colours and proclaiming the Resurrection.
So what’s your spiritual fitness and exercise plan for Lent? Allow me to offer readers a few suggestions.
Extra prayer: try a weekday Mass in addition to the Sunday ones; the family Rosary; try some time of adoration; some quiet time with God every day, even if it is just a few minutes more than normal. Confession, of course, is the Lenten prayer. There is no better way of purging yourself of all the impurities and really getting yourself in tip-top condition!
Extra fasting: no meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but how about every Friday? Skip the snacks between meals. Pick something you really like and often eat or drink – not something you really won’t miss much and so can easily give up – and let that go for six weeks. Fast from your smart phone on Fridays. Identify your own particular addiction or compulsion or bad habit and try going ‘cold turkey’ for Lent.
Extra almsgiving: CAFOD’s Family Fast Day is a favourite way of giving to the poor at this time. Don’t just give the loose change that is weighing down your pockets or purse: give so it bites a bit. Give so you’ve got to give up some luxury, some little pleasure, for once. How else might you help the needy? How about visiting a sick or elderly person? Or volunteering some time to a charity?
In the end, of course, the making of a saint is God’s work not ours. We may hope that our little acts of asceticism are motivated and empowered by God’s grace, and so open our hearts to receiving all the more from Him. Hopefully, our little penances manifest our love for God. If we enter the ‘desert’ of Lent to discipline our passions, it is only so we can enter more fully into the ‘dessert’ of Easter, when we will express those passions with alleluias.
As St. Augustine taught in his famous Confessions, it is by quieting the passions that we allow ourselves to listen to God – and then to sing with Him.