Lent: In Search Of the One and the Real

Lent, the great and holy fast, comes upon us again. It is a season of promise and peril. Promise, because we are invited to anticipate in ourselves the paschal mystery, whereby human nature is healed and elevated. Peril, because we risk disciplining ourselves in an aimless manner, so as to produce exhaustion rather than transformation. Therefore, we do well to consider why we labor, and to what end, that we might obtain our prize (1 Cor. 9:24–27).

Man was created with a receptive and reflective capacity vis-à-vis divinity, such that he could, by fixing his heart steadily on the Word, at once behold, assimilate, and radiate the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. God gave to our first parents “a portion even of the power of his own Word, so that having . . . [a] reflection of the Word (logos), and being made reasonable (logikoi), they might be able to abide ever in blessedness” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 3). Our flesh was not estranged from this transcendent gift. Indeed, it shared in the same splendor after its own fashion, being a sort of tabernacle or lantern of the Creator’s ineffable beauty.

The mystery of sin disrupted this intimate participation in God’s life. Man became “contemptuous” of divine things, “shrinking from their apprehension,” preferring “what was closer at hand” (St. Athanasius, Against the Pagans 2.). He succumbed to existential forgetfulness, developing a preoccupation with the sensual: “Abandoning the consideration of and desire for the One and the Real — I mean God — from then on they gave themselves up to various and separate desires of the body” (id. 3). Consequently, man lost his original integrity and stability. Engrossed in essentially non-existent things, he too slid toward non-existence, being conformed to the object of his worship (Ps. 115:8). For the knowledge of God is the “immutable and immoveable source and support of life,” whereas the “ignorance of him is death” (Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man Who Shall Be Saved VII).

To deliver us from this plight, Christ assumed the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), making himself visible and tangible, that the “paternal light” might show itself in, and communicate itself through, his “resplendent flesh” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV, 20, 2). The Savior, as man, restored in man the divine image — for he is himself the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) — and, turning the human heart back Godward, made it again blaze with heavenly luster. Exalted now in the glory of the Father, he works to cure us from the madness contracted from Adam, and to recollect what we have rashly scattered abroad.

Thus, we come to appreciate Lent as an occasion for askesis designed to recapture what we have lost: namely, our resemblance to the One and the Real.

This labor involves, firstly, gathering the soul back together, so that it is not inordinately attached to a multiplicity of passing things, but concentrated on the one needful thing (Lk. 10:42). So long as we are entangled in the phenomenal realm, our heart remains divided. To reestablish within ourselves the primordial unity of God (Jn. 17:21), we chasten the senses, withdrawing a little from the mutable and fragmentary, so that our inner eye may be full of “pure light, divinely shining, without any setting or change” (St. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount II, 3).

Likewise, we spurn the illusions that haunt this world: its many noisy and fantastic spectacles that induce lunacy. Rather, we cultivate silence, that the Word might be heard therein. And the Word is very Truth (Jn. 14:6). “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). As St. Augustine remarks somewhere, we are like the prodigal son, having traveled to a far country and grown oblivious to God among myriad distortions and distractions. Now we return to the Father, allowing Christ to show by the Spirit of truth what is and what is not. “You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge” (1 Jn. 2:20).

It is no surprise, given the foregoing, that Lent is marked by spiritual combat. We run after the One and the Real. But the enemy of human nature delights in division and deception leading unto death, and he desires that we should leave the living God to chase after swarming phantoms (Wis. 2:24, Mk. 5:9, Jn. 8:44). This is why Lent necessarily involves abstaining from certain necessities — food, drink, sleep — that we might remember our creaturehood and lean upon the Existent One (Ex. 3:14), lest we fall into delusion.

To be clear, we do not flee the phenomenal because we despise creation, but because we lament its present slavery and yearn mightily for its redemption (Rom. 8:19–23), when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). This redemption we hasten chiefly by renewing our own piece of creation, this body we carry about — not that we renew it, but Christ renews it in us. For we recognize the body’s supreme dignity as a throne of the divine presence (1 Cor. 6:19). Emphatically, we do not mortify the flesh so as to extinguish our humanity, but as to reform it, “put[ting] off the old man” that we might “put on the new man, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:22–23).

Here we spy the deepest point of Christian revelation, which the Lenten season vividly reveals, inasmuch as it gestures toward the fulfillment of all things in the paschal mystery. Refusing to take the world as an occasion for disintegration, we instead recognize it as the revelation of the Word, through whom we enter into the unity of the Father. Mortifying the flesh, with its desires contrary to the Word, who is our archetype, we cease to be mere shadows of human beings; yes, we become truly human, like Christ, the true Adam.

This Lent, let us be one and true, not many and false. Let us proceed with a single heart fit to birth the Word, who “wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment” (St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum VII, 2). Then we will be really human — and, insofar as we are able, really divine. St. Ignatius of Antioch put it best, and if we listen to him, we will have a fruitful fast: “Do not give to the world one who desires to belong to God, nor deceive him with material things! Allow me to obtain pure light; for when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a man” (Epistle to the Romans 6).

Philip Primeau About Philip Primeau

Philip Primeau is a layman of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He holds a bachelor's degree in theology and is currently a third-year law student. He may be contacted at primeau.philip1@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Wonderful. Many decades of “obligatory” penitence, but I admit to have found it more exhausting than reformative. I think now I understand why—thanks so much!

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