In a digital age virtual reality seems more convenient than actuality. Whims can be satisfied on the spot. You can pay extra for same-day delivery. If the name of an actor is on the tip of your tongue, Google can help your memory. When you want out-of-season vegetables you just need to find the right supermarket. In practice, these are perks of twenty-first-century living (in the First World) that we are reluctant to give up. The incremental danger, however, is a creeping distance from the world where disappointment and loss are inevitable. We feel our human rights have been abused when it is merely our consumer desires that have been denied. Contentment becomes a superficial feeling that keeps us permanently vulnerable, disassociated and self-centered. Jesus defended his disciples for not fasting while he was with them. He must have been a joyful and exhilarating person to be with. But he warned them of an impending separation and to be prepared for loss. There is a time-cycle for everything in life that even the best-stocked 24-hour convenience store cannot change. Blake said, “Kiss the joy as it flies.” The practices of Lent, resting on the foundation of the meditating day, help us to be both realistic and happy. The two go together in a way that consumerism can never fathom.
Our five senses and physical life are intricately woven into our spiritual seasons. When our spiritual life is clouded by negative states of mind or recurrent patterns that keep us self-absorbed, our senses too lose their edge. We feel dull, depressed and unengaged with the world and all its relationships, in which we live and breathe. But when we are spiritually awake, our senses pick up the vitality of life and we can smell, see, touch, hear and taste—whether it is ravishing or disgusting, at least we will sense it fully for what it is. The sensual part of our consciousness needs the spiritual and the spiritual needs the sensual. When they are balanced they merge and form a single, perfect language and we experience wholeness.
How can we make the best of this season? Commit more generously and absolutely to twice-daily meditation. Also embrace two other realistic yet hope-filled practices to develop self-control as a way to personal liberty and freedom from anxiety, compulsiveness and fear. One should involve moderation and the other, exertion. Reduce (or drop) something you do excessively—like alcohol or time-wasting. Add something you don’t do enough—like a daily nonjudgmental act of kindness to someone in need or simply being nice to people when they annoy you.
A lot can happen in forty days and forty nights. More useful things will happen if we enter into this period of sweet discipline with open hearts and minds, with conscious attention. It’s not about succeeding, however, but it’s about simply being faithful. That’s when the most interesting, enlivening things happen. It is then that our sense of God is opened, transforming everything.
The forty days and nights of Lent are about simplification, purification, getting priorities reestablished and remembering that God, not my ego, is the center of reality. Whatever discipline you take up for Lent (giving up sweets or alcohol, doing spiritual reading, spending more time with your loved ones, helping someone in need) it is about this—simplification and purification. The ancient word for this discipline was ascesis and it was used as a metaphor from the training exercises of athletes. Lent is a time for spiritual ascesis or exercise, shedding some unnecessary mental fat, toning the muscles of attention and patience.
—from the book Sensing God: Learning to Meditate during Lent by Laurence Freeman, OSB
The word discipline comes from the Latin discere, meaning “to learn.” We need discipline of course in learning a language, a musical instrument, to drive a car or to love and stay in a relationship. Discipline is not helpful if it is imposed by an external force against our will (except perhaps when we are two years old). If it is to work, discipline needs to be freely accepted and followed. This is especially true of a spiritual discipline. And yet without discipline we remain locked under the control of our ego and its repertoire of fears, anxieties, fantasies and desires. We are free only when we can choose to say yes or no from a place of enlightened self-knowledge.