Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lenten discipline

I have been promoting a new Lenten discipline to those who will listen (and their numbers are few, I must say). The gist of the suggestion is that instead of "giving something up for Lent," we take something on. I'm not sure that this a ground-breaking idea -- or even all that great a one, according to one friend. But it is my take on Lent.

We begin Lent by reflecting on Jesus' instruction to keep our piety off display. Of course, we follow that us with having ash crosses drafted onto our foreheads.

But Jesus' teaching is to engage in prayer and fasting in a way that does not draw attention to itself. (Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – Luke 18.) This is not a call to abandon liturgical displays (yes, I held that position even before I was "high church") or public displays of devotion. Rather, it is a call to integrate the life of faith so that it becomes a reflection of who one is and who one is reflects the faith she professes. To that extent, it doesn't become something unnatural to be flaunted, but something that comes naturally -- like grammar.

Certainly foregoing some of life's joys can be a good thing, a measure of spiritual discipline. To pare down one's pleasure for a while can be a good complement to the reflection and renewal that lie at the heart of Lent.

My problem with giving things up for Lent is that that particular spiritual practice seems determined to draw attention to itself. If one gives up a food, e.g., it becomes a strain on partygoing at the same time as it justifies that on religious grounds: "Oh, I'm sorry; I've given coffee up for Lent." or "I can't eat that dessert; I've given up chocolate for Lent." As a host (yes, I do, on occasion, host small gatherings during Lent -- or friends drop in and the host in me offers wine and nibbles: I don't see anything wrong with that.), I have been rather put off when people say such things to me. (It sounds so sanctimonious, even from the truly pious.)

In addition, giving something up for Lent often involves doing something that we ought to do anyway and or/doing it only for a limited time. If we give up something harmful (like, ahem, alcohol -- which I would never do), there's little justification: behaviorsot engage in behaviours (including eating and drinking) that harm the body that is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If it's something we should give up, it's no "sacrifice."

On another line, a friend says that it's good to relinquish something in honor or reflection of what Our Lord gave up for us. But I don't find that so very convincing, either. The Son gave up everything -- not just for a few days, but to the end of his life. His suffering was not an inconvenience. He did not choose what to give up; he accepted the cup that was offered (though not before asking that it be withdrawn). It seems a kind of "cheap discipleship" (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer) to connect our limited disciplining of desire with the kenosis of the Son. Better we should prepare ourselves to accept real suffering in his name when it is offered to us.

Third, that we give up the giving up when Easter turns sends a false message, too. The way we operate, we tend to separate Lent from Easter -- the Passion of Christ from the Resurrection. And I think that's bad theology. Because of the way the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord all must be kept in constant conversation, to suggest that his suffering is cut off by the resurrection, or that it was a way stop on the route to resurrection, is not helpful. To act out such a sure caesura is bad liturgy and theology.

That's why I prefer to undertake something during Lent. In the first place, by undertaking a new discipline, I fully intend that the practice NOT end with Easter. (I am no superhero, though, so it often falls to the wayside.) I hope by my Lenten discipline to reform my body and spirit to a newer, healthier openness to the life of faith which will continue in Easter and beyond.

This year, I have undertaken to read the Bible more sincerely, more scrupulously, more attentively (this is the big hurdle), more regularly. I am aided in this endeavor by Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, his newly published, insightful, very careful, and instructional translation of the Torah. I derive great joy from my new practice -- and with his excellent explanatory notes and his sometimes piquant translation, I am awakened from a dulling familiarity to a new engagement with the texts that are so familiar. (Next year, I intend to undertake a more physical regime -- something like exercise. But I wouldn't want to get too radical right off the bat!)

I'm finding this to be a very helpful discipline -- an obvious one, one that ought not have to be "planned" or approached with such intention, I suppose, too. But it gets me back to the main track. Ordinarily, I read voraciously in theology. But that's not the same thing as "searching the Scriptures." I'm a little like the liturgy specialist who reads everything that comes out on liturgy, but never goes to Church. It's a second-hand experience, not the direct engagement that we are intended to have. For my part, I'm out of touch with any part of the Bible I don't have at my memory's fingertips. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) This will restore me to engagement with the basic document of the faith (what some Roman Catholic scholars call "ressourcement" -- return to the sources). So, in addition to being important (and perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyable), this is something that reaches forward in my life, to form and inform my life of faith.

On the basis of my experience, I'll continue to encourage people to "take something on" for Lent. But by all means, also give something up if that's your inclination -- but not as a substitute, but as an adjunct to taking something on.


Jim said...

Excellent thoughts, Dwight. I'm looking forward to my next dip into Torah when we get some new Year 1 students for EFM next year. I'd also be interested if you'd post sometime on how your view of Torah and Tanakh have morphed from your first awareness into your current study. Up to it?

Camassia said...

It may depend on your personality. Hugo Schwyzer, I noticed, seems to be going in the opposite direction: "n my faith journey, I've not always given up things for Lent. In recent years, I've focused on simply taking on an extra activity, or increasing my volunteer hours. But I realize that for someone like me, that's a mistake. It's easy for me to always do more. I know how to push myself pretty hard, often to the point of exhaustion or illness. What I'm not nearly as good at is surrendering things, particularly the little addictions (like Lo-Carb Monster drinks) that I rely on to 'power through' my various obligations."

Maurice Frontz said...

Dwight, I have to strongly disagree with you on this one. Of course, even as "dissatisfied" Lutherans we agree that fasting and study are matters of freedom, and that we are free to do them for the sake of our devotion. So really, whether one takes on a fast or an extra discipline (or both!) is in a strict sense an indifferent matter, one which cannot be commanded. The remainder of my post will be dedicated to an apologia for Lenten fasting.

First of all, it is an enimently graspable practice for people. As a parish pastor, this seems to be a very concrete thing that my parishioners at all levels of understanding actually practice and inquire about. Not that that makes it right, just pedagogically useful.

Secondly, all your objections are based on the symptoms of a faulty observance of the fast. You say that people bring it up when they don't need to. Fine - the solution is to read Matthew 6 again. What is to stop someone from simply saying "No, thank you" to the forbidden treat or beverage when it is offered? And as regarding the "something we ought to do anyway" objection, that itself needs to be addressed by education. It is the goods in life from which we are to fast. One does not fast from binge drinking or bar-hopping, one repents of those. One fasts from the glass of wine or mug of lager one always has in the evening.

Does it cheapen the Passion of Christ to contemplate it by our fasting? Only if one makes the error of comparing one's admittedly limited suffering to Christ's. It would be a pretty coarse or clueless church member who would make that assertion. But as a way to contemplate the self-emptying of Christ in the desert or on the cross, fasting does the trick better than anything else. If giving up coffee doesn't do it, try a media fast, or actually fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays after the pattern of the early church, or fasting from a number of so-called "extras."

Is it really the point to repeat the desert experience of Jesus anyway? I think it is to experience the reality of our emptiness in a way that calls us into solidarity with the Son who would not let anyone but the Father fill his life.

For the same reason we liturgical people fast from "alleluia" during Lent. In Easter you can't get away from it. It is this rhythm of "fast" and "feast" that has been lost in consumer society. In the midst of constant feasting it is Christians who must acknowledge and proclaim the desert of a fast.

To save this from getting way too long (too late!), I'll just recommend Richard Foster's chapter on "Fasting" from Celebration of Discipline. But my final point would be that it strikes me that "adding on" something for Lent has its own dangers. It has the seductive lure of accomplishment. One wants to share one's newfound knowledge or insights with the world (or at least with one's blogring.)

So, by all means, Dwight, add something on, but as an adjunct to "giving something up." :)