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Of body, mind, and spirit

by
09 February 2024

Charles Moseley prepares for Lent

Alamy

The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Battle between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A SONG from about 1300 begins “Lenten ys come with love to toune”: the spring season, the season of animals and birds mating, the joy of growth and fertility everywhere, forcing itself on you. As Tennyson puts it,
 

“In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
Look at me! Join in! Join the dance!
 

The Old English word lencten (“lengthen, draw out”) came to mean the season itself, when, each day, the sun climbs higher, and living things wake from winter sleep. Yet, not so long ago, this was the very time when you had little choice but to tighten your belt, and to go without. You might have some eggs from the hens coming into lay, and milk from newly calved cows. Some salted meat or bacon might be left. But your over-wintered stores would be low, and it still wanted months to harvest.

After weeks of dried peas or beans (also running low), you (and your body) would be very grateful for any fresh greens you could get. Certainly, you might have a bit of a blowout on Quinquagesima (Shrove Sunday) weekend, and finish any last meat and eggs on Collop Monday (you then used the dripping from the meat to make Shrove Tuesday pancakes).

You might even seriously let your hair down — in some places, like Venice, or parts of Germany today, masks helped you do that — on Mardi Gras or Karnival or Fasching or Shrove Tuesday, when the world was briefly upside down, and behind their masks you could tell neither prince from pauper, nor Colonel’s Lady from Judy O’Grady.

 

IN THIS hungry time, the Church for centuries has kept the long fast of Lent, and encouraged self-denial and examination of conscience. It has also seen the weeks leading up to Lent as a time for reflection and preparation. How should we — do we — prepare for Lent? Cranmer’s BCP collects for Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima emphasise, respectively, our need for discipline, humility, and love, and ask for grace to help find them. And then, having thought on and (perhaps) learned something about these things, we begin the 40 days of Lent. And it’s not all about food, or giving up chocolate or alcohol.

Lent follows Carnival (carnem vale: “farewell to flesh”): you know the one by the other. They are Bakhtinian complementaries — but the Church understood long before any Russian theorist the intimate and necessary relation of each to the other. Just so, Plato yokes two horses, flesh and spirit, to the chariot of the soul; and Aristotle defines humankind as a rational animal, nether all reason and spirit, nor all appetite and matter, but an interactive, paradoxical combination of all.

When we “give things up for Lent”, when we try to discipline our wills to refuse ourselves things and pleasures that are in themselves innocent, we are getting ourselves morally in better fettle to resist pleasures, actions, and indulgences when they are dangerous.

But Lenten fasting is a mere shadow of true ascesis: that is, deliberately to go into training like an athlete, training body and mind to work together; for (it was anciently held), at the Fall, the body/mind harmony was fatally dislocated, and appetite began its despotic rule. Excess of food — far beyond what was needed for survival — fed the unruly desires and uncontrollable impulses of the body to sex, anger, covetousness, and sloth. Relinquishing everything not absolutely necessary sought to restore spirit’s rule over body and body’s desires. So, fasting and watching, discipline and silence, far, indeed, from being life-denying, sought a fullness of spirit ready for the joy beyond the walls of this world which all desire, perhaps without knowing it.

 

TO BE hungry voluntarily might teach us compassion for those in real, constant hunger — and perhaps even to do something about their suffering. But nobody could pretend that fasting or self-denial, in whatever measure, is easy. Perversely, desire for something increases as soon as you forbid it. The great saints and ascetics may manage it, but most of us trip on our journey. The Church — no mere authority structure, but all of us who seek to follow the Lord — has, since its beginning, wisely allowed for that weakness of our flesh against the ambitions of our spirit.

In mid-Advent and mid-Lent fall the refreshments of Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday (Advent 3) and Laetare (“Be happy”) Sunday (Lent 4), when things can relax a bit, like getting a second wind when you are doing a run. So, you have fallen down on your journey? Recognise why you tripped; say sorry; pick yourself up; have another go.

 

IN SACRAMENTAL confession — being shriven (hence “Shrovetide”, the name for the period from Septuagesima to Lent) — which a surprising number of people seek as a preliminary to the spiritual workout of Lent, the Church wisely offers the chance of a fresh start: a chance to accept, live with, the effects of your life; to feel at peace, even knowing that the consequences of past actions can never be escaped. But that self-knowledge and acceptance depend on what Cranmer’s collects wisely pinpointed: discipline — being systematic; humility — a clear-eyed acknowledgement (even if it hurts) of responsibility for the mess that we have made, and saying heartily sorry; and love — of ourselves as well as others. “Love your neighbour as yourself”: if you cannot love yourself, what price the love that you have for others?

Christ said to the woman guilty of adultery who had been brought to him for judgement (she must have been terrified): “Neither do I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more.” But to accept the forgiveness freely offered to the penitent means that you have to forgive yourself, which is one of the hardest things of all to do; for then you have to put away all self-importance, all pride, and acknowledge that you are as the dust of the earth, and to dust you will return. But only of that dust are saints moulded.

 

Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

charlesmoseley.com

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