Asceticism marks a holy Lent. The prayer book calls the faithful to observe the season through concrete practices of self-discipline and abstinence: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” These ascetic practices are preparation for commemorating the Lord’s Passion and resurrection. They are means to an end, exercises for the spiritual life. They are not primarily negative, but are more like reps in the gym or laps in the pool. Ascesis is exercise. The words asceticism and ascetic, after all, derive from the Greek word askēsis (practice, exercise), referring to athletic training. Lent is for getting in shape.
Lent is also, you might say, for feasting. Christians fast, says Cyril of Jerusalem, so that “we may enjoy a spiritual and intellectual feast” (Catechetical Lectures 4.27). Fasting from external things is for the sake of feasting on internal things. Fasting from what is seen (sensibilia) makes room for feasting on what is unseen (intellegibilia). We fast from what is temporal to feast on what is eternal.
Workouts and feasts both involve a degree of difficulty. The rich foods of a feast are not for infants or the infirm. There are “such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat” (Heb. 5:12). I would need to be in much better shape to begin training for the Ironman; attempting the “Hell Week” operational training for Navy SEAL candidates would probably kill me. But even SEALs have to start somewhere.
All this is a long way of getting around to recommending that you take some time this Lent to listen to a series of lectures by Rowan Williams. He has given this year’s Hulsean Lectures, on “Christ and the Logic of Creation,” at Cambridge. (You can find the audio recordings here.) In six lectures, Lord Williams explores the Creator-creature relationship by way of a careful tracing of the development of Christian thinking about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The purpose is to unfold the implications of the claim that divine action and human action are non-competitive, that, as Lord Williams says, “for God to be God and for humanity to be humanity are in no imaginable sense incompatibles.” The lectures cover a formidable historical range (St. Paul, Origen, Augustine, Leontius of Jerusalem and Leontius of Byzantium, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all come into play), and the discussion is at times dauntingly technical. Yet this meatiness is precisely why I commend this lecture course to you. Think of it as a Lenten feast.
Now, you might be inclined to wonder why you should bother to wrestle with the technicalities of patristic and medieval Christology: Lord Williams brings up this question himself. But think of it as a form of intellectual exercise, ascesis for your mind. Don’t be daunted by the difficulty alone. After all, as the poet Geoffrey Hill — whose work is often deprecated as being “overly intellectual” and “difficult” — once said in an interview,
Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we’re mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?
One of the significant goods of grappling with “difficult” works of art (or theological lectures) is the way doing so can provide training for enduring the ordinary difficulties of life. As Hill adds, there are further political implications to all this: if “tyranny requires simplification,” then the difficulty of complex language and nuanced thought can fund resistance to tyranny. To bring it closer to home, a decision “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences” entails a great deal of difficult and demanding work (cf. Christopher Wells’s recent piece). And I am suggesting that the kinds of virtues exercised in following a course of theological lectures are akin to the virtues required for this work.
But the best reason for taking the time this Lent to listen to this series of lectures in particular is simply that they are concerned with the Lord Jesus. This, after all, is the point of any Lenten discipline: to direct our gaze to the Lord. These lectures certainly gesture toward him, pointing to the One who satisfies the soul “as with marrow and fatness” (Ps. 63:5).