What did you “give up” for Lent?
The season of Lent is typically associated with certain spiritual disciplines, sacrifices, or ascetic practices. To put it in fitness vocabulary, it’s a forty-day spiritual boot camp or a kind of high-intensity interval training, given the Sunday feasts and rests.
This association with physical fitness says something about the roots of why we, for example, give up coffee and donate the extra money to charity. The word “asceticism” itself derives from the Greek term askesis, which in ancient times often referred to training for athletic events. It eventually gained particular significance in the “training” of human character. Therefore, the title of askete or one who engages in askesis could be attributed to an athlete, hermit, or monk.
Why should we willingly submit ourselves to these ascetic exercises? Not to show off before others, as Jesus reproaches the Pharisees, or to engage in quasi-sadomasochistic self-punishment. Rather, going back to the early Christian monastic traditions, the first fruit of askesis is self-knowledge. St. Anthony of the Desert exhorts that the knowledge of ourselves is the necessary and only step by which we can attain the knowledge and love of God.
The desire for self-knowledge is not unique to Christianity. Socrates quotes the inscription — “Know thyself”— from the front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Even today the mantra of self-awareness is often aligned with a secularized spirituality than a particular religion or faith. As an example, the plethora of websites and apps devoted to the ascetic practice of meditation (with the goal of mindfulness) have exploded over the past decade.
What sets Christian asceticism apart from other religious and secular ascetic practices is the One for whom we are doing it as well as the One with whom we are doing it. We consciously invite God into our ascetic practices. As David says in Psalm 139:23, “Search me, Lord, and know my heart.”
Without self-knowledge (and perhaps more importantly, accurate self-knowledge!), we can easily lapse into a surface level confession of sins. Sure, we may be sorry for what we’ve done but we don’t take the time to really understand why we act or why we don’t.
Self-knowledge or self-awareness may include understanding my motivations. In other words, I seek to become more internally conscious of what I feel and what I value. I may also seek to understand how I define myself. I become more attentive to what is externally going on around me or even how others see me.
For example, if I have chosen to fast from social media, I may discover how much I crave the attention and validation of others. This may prompt me to consider whether I have put more emphasis on the numbers of “likes” and “shares” rather than God as a source of my identity or worth.
I find this “getting to know myself” or self-knowledge the most daunting, humbling, and yet the most critical element of spiritual growth during Lent. Last year, I chose to “add something” as part of my askesis. Every morning after breakfast, I opened my Laudate app and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours. I discovered great joy in praying with the universal Church; I daresay it brought me a bit out of my individualism.
This year I chose to fast from alcohol. It was a somewhat flippant decision, even after prayer. I don’t have an addiction to alcohol, although the years have quelled my more youthful motivations to use alcohol as a means to becoming less inhibited in a social context.
Last weekend when my husband and I recently invited a friend over for dinner, I shared that I would not be drinking my favorite Pinot Noir. As we sat around the fireplace relating the events of the week, I felt oddly hollow. I did not have the desire to impress my neighbor with my latest article. I did not respond to a sarcastic remark with an equally acerbic quip. I was “just me.” In all my sober poverty, stripped of trying to make myself look better in front of another.
Noise, both external and internal, is a particularly insidious impediment to self-knowledge. I find that the more I can carve out time for stillness and silence, when it’s “just me” and God, the more I begin to draw together the fragments of who I think I am and why I do what I do. Turning or returning (“shuv” in Hebrew) to God and presenting all these pieces to my Abba Father, I rediscover His presence, still loving me and welcoming me back.
Unlike some medieval rituals, I am not suggesting or advocating an excessive or extreme asceticism in the effort to climb the lofty heights on the spiritual ladder. Thomas Merton wisely warned that “asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks.” Rather, its foundation is humility. Adds Merton, “We must gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.” (Merton, No Man is an Island)
Moreover, a danger of all this introspection or turning into oneself is that it can lead to the opposite effect. Self-focus and self-absorption are the antithesis of the Gospel. Asceticism for asceticism’s sake can be a source of pride or, on the opposite end, shame which leads to despair. Which makes the pivotal question whether we’re seeking self-knowledge for self or self-knowledge for God.
If we’re finding that our Lenten asceticism isn’t very spiritually profitable or we think we have failed miserably in our practices, perhaps it’s a good time to consider their purpose. Are our physical and spiritual disciplines leading to greater self-knowledge? Do we do them just to “tick off a box” on our Lenten checklist? Do we do them to make ourselves look better to others? Have we invited God to be with us in the wilderness?
Tamra Fromm is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. Her first manuscript "Pre-Evangelization and Young Adult 'Native Nones'", is available for purchase via both Wipf and Stock and Barnes & Noble.