I’ve found that, for all the glories of the Church, there are two which almost universally inspire envy in those outside of her folds: The Sacrament of Penance and the season of Lent. Speak on the life-changing effects of contemplation — you may get some interest from the Zen kid at the back. Pontificate on the papacy — you’ll be lucky to piss off a Presbyterian. But tell someone you’re going to confess your sins to a priest, or that, for the next forty days, you’re giving up coffee — voila, you’ve got interest.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case: When the ethical status quo is the timid mandate to “enjoy yourself without hurting others” Lent’s demand that you “deny yourself” takes on all the fascination of a forbidden fruit — a veritable of brothel of austerity and a compelling temptation towards virtue. In a world in which the ethical act par excellence is to “accept yourself” the ethics of Lent are have all the grand romanticism of a sin. She says, mocking the age: Do not accept yourself. There is, after all, something quite wrong with your self. She explodes the entire artifice of self-acceptance and self-love and musters up from some dark, medieval unconscious — the Anti-self. It demands from a pacifist people an incomparable inner violence, a civil war — a rebellion of self against self within the unity of a single person.
If it sounds gloomy, try telling any post-Christian denizen at any Bed, Bath and Beyond that you are giving up your mattress and taking the floor for the penitential season — stripping the rotten layers of comfort that have accumulated around your now-pasty, now-sensitive flesh. You’ll catch a gleam of longing in back of their retina. We are culturally deprived of any opportunities for mortification. We yearn for it as one yearns for plain bread after a week of sweets or as a man marinating in the warmth of his bed longs for cold air and consuming work. This convincing call to smash ourselves into pieces is present in every man who, stuffed with comfort, living pleasantly in a pleasant housing complex, begins to read books on Arctic explorations; begins to hate waking up; begins to emphasize with Walker Percy’s protagonists:
There at any rate stands Will Barret on the edge of a gorge in Old Carolina, a talented agreeable wealthy man living in as pleasant an environment as one can imagine and yet who is thinking of putting a bullet in his brain.
Asceticism — the voluntary taking on of pain, want, and suffering — is a natural breath of the human spirit, and the ban on asceticism is a deliberate reduction of life. Lest this devolve into some kind of sermon on chest-thumping manly-manliness, let me be quite clear: I am a limp and comfort-ridden invertebrate drifting to whatever warmth or pleasure tickles my consciousness. I have all the firmness and willpower of dropped ice-cream. I fear pain. But consider:
1. Suffering, want, and death are certainties of human existence. To live a life that actively avoids pain, suffering and want is only to make ourselves less and less capable of dealing with it when it comes — for indeed, the Iceman cometh. Far better to begin, even now, an active training in the inevitable vocation of the human race than to gradually neuter our capacity for the heroism that catastrophe and death will most certainly demand of us.
2. Suffering, want, and death, even when we are momentarily cushioned against them, are occurring, as we speak, to our neighbors. This may only concern those who blush to find themselves fed while others starve and warm while others freeze, but have it anyways: The insulated avoidance of suffering removes us from any kind of genuine solidarity with humanity, which, as a family, suffers, moans, labors and dies.3. Deliberately comfortable people cannot affirm that God loves them, nor that life is worth living, nor that the universe is good. They are too busy avoiding large swaths of the universe, medicating the miserable parts of life, and thanking God only insofar as “What happens to those other people doesn’t happen to me.” William James has this to say about that:
Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside of his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether. But…it is but for the individual; and leaves the evil outside of him, unredeemed and unprovided for by his philosophy…It accepts, in lieu of a real deliverance, what is a lucky personal accident merely, a cranny to escape by. It leaves the general world unhelped…The real deliverance…must be of universal application.
If one has ever taken the fact of the prevalence of tragic death in this world’s history fairly into his mind–freezing, drowning, entombment alive, wild beasts, worst men, and hideous diseases–he can with difficulty, it seems to me, continue his own career of world prosperity without suspecting that he may all the while not really be inside the game, that he may lack the great initiation.
Well, this is exactly what asceticism thinks; and it voluntarily takes the initiation.
Like children around a chilly pool, we simultaneously long for and fear the great initiation into the totality of life. On the one hand, we see the goodness of self-inflicted suffering. Tell us that Christian Bale starved himself in order to lose enough weight to play the emaciated protagonist of The Machinist, or that Leonardo diCaprio choked down a raw liver for The Revenant, and we’ll go into IMDB-ecstasies — the sacrifices men make for Art! Tell us the excruciating workout routine of a professional athlete, and we’ll be similarly struck — what dedication to the Sport! But, tell us that Pope St. John Paul II whipped himself with a belt and, yup, there it is — a nice strong waft of moral disapproval. Self-inflicted suffering for Art — idyllic. Self-inflicted suffering for sport — Noble. Self-inflicted suffering for God, solidarity, and human flourishing — medieval, self-hating and vaguely pornographic.
But I wonder whether our modern, da-Vinci-Code inspired and titillated horror over fasts, ashes, deprivations, hair-shirts and flagellums is really an honest, healthy rejection of self-mutilation, as much as it is a reaction of a generation incapable of affirming the whole of life. For me, at least, it is the latter. I do not have a particular balanced view of the goodness of the body, or vivacious sense of “the good life” that the austerity of a St. Francis or the mortifications of the Desert Fathers threaten. The asceticism of the Saints horrifies me because the Saints are capable of giving their life-affirming “yes” even to suffering, saying: This too is good. This too comes from the open hand of the Father. This too should be sought for the sake of human flourishing. The Saints can declare the entire universe and the total humanity good and worthy of participation, while I am left affirming the life insofar as it doesn’t get too rough, giving my “yes” to a portion of existence wedged between the smothering constraints of comfort, happily absenting myself from the total humanity who groans on the outskirts.