Lenten Disciplines like a Walk in the Woods

A quiet walk in an old growth forest offers a place of refuge and retreat from the bustle and pace of modern urban life. We need time in such places–set aside, left alone, undeveloped–to restore our physical and emotional life.

The same can be said for the promise of spiritual disciplines (such as fasting, solitude, and scripture meditation) as practiced during the season of Lent (or at any other time). They serve as places to listen quietly for the Word and the Spirit of God, to restore our souls, and to recalibrate the connections between our emotional, our intellectual, and our physical lives.

Trying to find those connections without the space offered by the disciplines is like trying to listen to a long lost friend on the phone while sitting in a noisy nightclub, or standing on the floor of the stock exchange, or doing the wave in a crowded stadium. Under such conditions we may not hear the message at all. In the midst of our busy lives, apart from places of refuge and discipline, we can become like the impoverished child of which C. S. Lewis spoke: content to sit in the gutter with our mud pies yet unable to grasp what is being offered with an invitation to the beach.

For the early church fathers and mothers, this was at least in part the logic of (as it may seem to us) their strange practices of curtailing food and sleep. They were aiming at something better: to cleanse the palate, to clear the mind, to recover God’s image given originally in creation, revealed again in the life of Jesus. Leaving off all of the extra things allowed them to rediscover the taste of spring water.

The painting featured in this post is entitled Generations. For more information on this painting, and other paintings in the series, go to the Landscape gallery of my art work at Fine Art America.

The Goal of Lent

It is the season of Lent. But why all the long faces? Doesn’t the story of the Christian Scriptures begin with good news (creation) and end with even better news (new creation and a wedding feast)? “Yes, but,” as someone will no doubt remind me, “the story also entails the fall of our race, and the disordering of all of our affections, so that we love (and fear and desire) what is not fitting. That’s why we practice disciplines like fasting, almost like the ancient Stoics, so we can seek a more virtuous life.” All of this is true, I believe, and the Stoics deserve our admiration and study. (“All truth is God’s,” as Justin the Martyr and Thomas Aquinas said.) But are the foundational stories of Stoics and Christians really the same? Stoics view the world as a place of hard law and fate where history offers nothing beyond a cyclical stage upon which to practice heroic courage and self-discipline. On such a stage, the disciplines may be an end in themselves. But in the Christian story, the goal of the disciplines looks beyond such athletic achievements to the creation of a new community, tempered by self-sacrificing love. In that world, as the ancient monastics knew, the disciplines are not an end in themselves. Indeed they must be set aside if they interfere with caring for the needs of our neighbor. It may also be well to consider, as we think about our own goals for Lent, that heroes are sometimes a real handful for others to live with.

The art work in this post is titled “Mahonia Morning,” and is in a private collection. More information about this painting and others can be found in the galleries of my art work at Fine Art America.