Pope Francis recently called on people to fast for a day in solidarity with the suffering of Ukraine. To some it may have been a sign of the helplessness we all feel. Fasting would then be a milder version of Buddhist monks burning themselves during the VietNam war. To others it would have been suspiciously magical: sacrifice something and God will answer your prayer.
I think it rather needs to be heard in the tradition of Christian asceticism, which Lent asks us to reflect on. The mystery of the Incarnation leads us to think differently about human existence. It opens us to the conclusion that the human body is a temple of the spirit. The human spirit, however, is not a ‘ghost in a machine’. We are embodied spirits and, furthermore, our bodies are continuously being spiritualised. Descartes and many of his dualistic followers who think that consciousness is the brain miss the wonder of the insight of unified consciousness implicit in Christian faith.
Asceticism (literally it means ‘exercise’ or ‘training’) in the monastic tradition is not about the subjugation or punishment of the body. It assumes instead the indissoluble link between body and mind and spirit. To treat one badly is to offend them all. There is a sign of this in the near universal outrage against the Russian invasion. Probably if most of Putin’s supporters in Russia knew what is really happening they would feel the same. If we felt as strongly as this about climate change we would be able to act more quickly. Maybe Covid and the Ukraine crisis are dark angels reminding us of our unity as a human family.
If asceticism is not magical self-inflicted suffering, then what is it? It is a self-healing. It exposes the false idea that body and soul are at war with each other and it restores their lost or forgotten harmony. Asceticism is therefore a wakeup call to our beautiful human condition and unlimited potential for life. Think of how an athlete looks beautiful in her physical form after training and her performance is wondrous and delightful. Walking through a shopping mall or DutyFree at the airport reminds us of the consequences of the loss of this harmony and the excess and insatiable craving that results from losing consciousness of our unity.
Desire and fantasy invade, covertly replacing joy and the sense of reality. Without our realising it, the compulsion of imaginary wants takes over. Lao Tse said, ‘there is no worse calamity than the unrestrained increase of needs’.
Asceticism exposes the disordered feelings and thoughts that the desert teachers called ‘passions’. Their wisdom shows us the links between asceticism and both violence and environmental abuse. Fr John simplified it further for a complex age by saying that the essential ascesis of life is found in the practice of meditation.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2022