EACH year, as Lent approaches, I wonder what I should be giving up. I am aware that some dismiss the whole idea of giving things up as negative and guilt-inducing, but there is a point to Christian asceticism: it is ultimately about the transformation of the self, the human response to the call to holiness.
This was underlined, for me, in an unexpected way when I found myself watching two television series on how individuals are selected for the SAS and the Paras. The programmes reminded me that the Greek word for asceticism, askesis, originally referred to athletic training: the disciplines required for competitive games. In Christian asceticism, the competition is not with others but with oneself.
And so it is, in some respects, with the SAS and the Paras. In SAS: Who Dares Wins, broadcast recently on Channel 4, one woman and two men were selected for the SAS out of the 24 who began the initial training. The training they went through involved extreme tests of physical strength and endurance. But they also had to show mental and emotional resilience. Those who got through did so because they were prepared to let the outer disciplines produce inner changes of attitude.
In Paras: Men of war, broadcast on ITV, participants began their training with a severe haircut. They were then told that they would all be known as “Joe”. The haircut and the renaming challenged their previous identity, much as Christian baptism challenges genetic identity.
The SAS, on the other hand, valued individual difference. But they needed personalities who were able to trust one another, setting aside natural egoism and petty likes and dislikes. “Your oppo’s [partner’s] life is more important than your own,” they were told. Of the three selected, one was a female orthopaedic surgeon. She had been found lacking in empathy in early exercises, but won through in the later stages by sheer grit. The two men selected had significant experience of bereavement, which had brought them both pain and insight.
I would never in a million years be able to cope with the challenges of military life. But I recognise Lent as a call to a parallel self-discipline. It is, in a sense, spiritual warfare against the craving, needy, greedy self. Most of us are weakened by the relentless pressure to make decisions about what we buy, eat, and wear, as though our whole identity depended on such choices. We could learn to put up with minor inconveniences. How about a Lent on instant coffee rather than skinny lattes? Small changes, “giving things up for Lent”, has more transformative potential than we might imagine.
The purpose of Christian asceticism is, ultimately, to help us get over ourselves — perhaps the best contemporary phrase for what the Christian spiritual tradition calls “mortification”.