Catholicism represents one of the numerous spiritual traditions that invites its adherents to a period of purification. Hinduism, Buddhism, the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and the Roman Stoics would all have known bodily cleansing.
Certainly, self-denial of bodily desires is integral to Catholicism, not only Catholic mystics. Different words are used to describe the process ranging from the traditional purifying to the current detoxifying the body.
I often see health conscious people working out first thing in the morning – as early as 4:30 a.m.! – and rightly so; the body needs to be looked after.
People cut back on fats, sugars, starches, and overall calorie intake for health purposes. This means conscientious individuals will discipline themselves to curb their appetites and modify their eating habits, run on the treadmill, climb the Stairmaster, or ride bikes.
In western societies where indulging in pleasure from food to sex is promoted in advertising, music, and movies, the morally conscious individual requires determination or “force” to avoid succumbing to bodily instincts.
Self-restraint proves to be difficult, but with set goals one can compare the results, such as weight loss or body sculpting where the incentive is visible, or in the case of health, where one can empirically measure the difference in cholesterol level, blood pressure, triglycerides, and so forth.
So, what is the end goal for Lenten purification? I mean, why bother? Are the results noticeable or measurable?
Lent is a time of year when Roman Catholics can engage in spiritual exercise, disciplining the body and soul to bring the instincts under control.
In other words, Lent is a time to spiritually build the person just as athletes build muscles through exercise and students build knowledge through studies.
The soul also needs building exercises and this is achieved through purification of the body where the human will finds freedom in uniting itself with the will of God.
God’s will for us is to be holy, and holiness also means the capacity to detach oneself from the world – the capacity to let go and invite God to fill our minds, hearts, and bodies with his divine presence. God offers us his grace to assist us. God offers us his son.
The end goal therefore of the Roman Catholic Lenten period is to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ more intimately – as Christ journeys through the desert we journey with him. We detach ourselves from our human desires to make room for Jesus Christ so our fundamental desire is union with Christ.
One could say that we do not need to fast or abstain to make room for Christ or to make greater room for Christ. But for the Roman Catholic, almsgiving, prayer and fasting are biblically inspired acts and are taught by Christ himself (Mt. 6:1-18).
Furthermore, apart from being the tradition which the Church has given us to purify ourselves to make our minds, hearts, and bodies more receptive to Christ, fasting and abstinence are very concrete ways of exercising virtues. A person grows in virtue by performing concrete virtuous acts.
People often have a dismissive attitude toward someone who has given up coffee or sweets during Lent, or has taken up the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Yet, individuals who engage in such practices are concretizing force and temperance by refraining from bodily desires. Such Lenten practices are worthy of being encouraged, not dismissed.
Of course, one should also think of relational efforts such as removing all electronic communication during meals, for example, or praying first thing in the morning before switching on the Internet or TV, or re-building fractured relationships by taking some initiative to heal wounds as simple as a visit or telephone call.
The practice of almsgiving entails a sacrifice because we deprive ourselves of some monetary or material good to help others, such as the Church or a diocesan charity. Such practices are ways of purifying the mind and body from the poison of modern junk – the hedonistic ethos that can easily seduce us. There is plenty of modern junk that we can eliminate during Lent. The priority should be one’s spiritual state – the relationship with Christ – over the next 40 days.
And why not continue some form of discipline, sacrifice, penance, self-denial after Lent?
So, our journey is intimacy with Christ during Lent – the desert journey where we encounter Christ. Our body experiences the desert by stripping it of all the superfluous, and the cleansing through self-denial.
We offer more of ourselves in prayer instead of endless texting and networking.
We make sacrifices through material contributions however we can.
We are nourished by the sacraments – because only the sacraments truly nourish the soul – and Communion with Jesus, with his mother and with the saints at the cross because Christianity means union with the cross of Christ. Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday and we do not celebrate the Resurrection without the Crucifixion.
This is what makes the Roman Catholic period of Lent distinct from any other religious tradition. Our journey is with Jesus Christ though the desert to the foot of the Cross. Then, with the Resurrection of our Lord, we can hope for eternal salvation.
Father David Bellusci is a Dominican priest and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Catholic Pacific College in Langley. [email protected]