Here we are in the middle of Lent and I’m stuck on hippies.
I’ve always been fascinated by the 1960s. These were wild and momentous years, populated by colorful and absurd characters whose impact far outstripped their usefulness. But drop the whole psychedelic mess into the period of the Great Fast and a compelling comparison of cultures emerges, one that might change how we see ourselves.
Self-indulgence and self-actualization characterized hippie culture, values perhaps best exemplified by the advocacy of free love and psychedelic drugs. Any behavior that promised to fulfill or advance these twin virtues was permitted and promoted. Odd and even destructive modes of behavior and lifestyle unsurprisingly flourished as a result.
This hippie approach to life stands in stark contrast to a Christian approach. The Christian is not so much interested in self-actualization. The Christian is rather interested in a sort of self-marginalization. We say with John the Baptist that Christ must increase while we decrease.
If the hippie represents sixties’ culture and values, the monk serves as his Christian counterpart. The monk lives a life of self-denial for the purpose of growing in union with God and laying down his life for the world, for which he ceaselessly prays. He promotes the needs of others, not his own.
But it’s not just the monk. The true ascetic comes draped in a million different robes. The spouse who denies his or her needs for the good of the family, the independent teenager who patiently obeys his parents, the coworker who helps a colleague — these are all pictures at variance with the culture of indulgence and endless self-actualization.
And that variance reflects the life we’re called to.
We are created in the image of God, but God desires that we grow evermore into the likeness of Christ. None of us bears that likeness fully or perfectly. We all have shortcomings and failures and places to improve. That means we have a job of perpetual growth and maturation. This requires us to lay down our lives and take up Jesus.
This laying down stands counter to the culture of indulgence and appears to many like an empty exercise in self-denial. Not really. It’s inescapably a denial of self because it involves pursuing Christ’s interests rather than our own: We must decrease so that he can increase. But it goes one step beyond mere denial.
Ultimately, the daily acts of renunciation — which are heightened in the Lenten season — that characterize the Christian life are acts of affirmation. We deny the world and its lusts to become more like our truest self, the Lord Christ.