Remembering that We are But Dust (or, Why Academics Need Lent)

Many evangelical and Reformed folks today are wont to turn up their noses at the practice of Lenten fasting.  There seems to be something unhealthily ascetic about it, with the notion that somehow we draw nearer to God by mortifying our flesh and thereby becoming more spiritual.  There seems to be a trace of Gnosticism, a sense that the body is a bad thing and we must beat it down, cast off its desires and its needs, to be truly spiritual.  And there is also a sense that this practice must lead to pride, to the notion that because one has overcome one's bodily desires to become more spiritual, one may take pride in this superior spirituality and self-discipline.  

And so there has been a tendency to try to re-cast Lenten fasting--we are exhorted to choose something that we are too attached to, and to "give it up" for Lent so that we can become more cognizant of our warped desires, our idolatries of worldly things, and be more single-minded in our devotion to God.  If you care too much about chocolate, give up chocolate for Lent, acknowledging that God is more important than chocolate, etc.  Or it needn't even be food.  Perhaps you watch too many movies--why don't you give that up, so as to put God back at the center?  We're afraid that Lent not be construed as an unhealthy mortification of the body, so we recast it as an opportunity to refocus our desires and devotions on God alone.  

There's certainly nothing wrong with such a refocusing, and indeed that ought to be part of a healthy Lenten practice, but it seems that something crucial is left out in this approach.  And this, I think, is because the standard discomforts about Lent--it leads to Gnosticism and pride--have got it precisely backward.  Rightly understood, Lent is about purging us of spiritual pride by reminding us of our bodily condition, of snatching us away from lofty heavenly speculations and putting us firmly back in our tabernacles of skin, bones, and appetites.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" the priest tells us as he administers the ashes.  Remember that you live in the body.  And being in the body means being a dependent being, a being that depends upon God's animate and inanimate creation, in its manifold forms, to continue living, functioning, thinking.  (My friend Byron has highlighted this nicely in a Lenten reflection he's just posted.)  How does Lenten fasting do this?  Well, it's really quite simple.

Usually, we don't know how much we need something, until we don't have it.  Indeed, we might start to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as "self-made men," because we have become so accustomed to the prerequisites of our existence, that we forget that we're even there.  If you've spent your whole life going to a fantastic church, you might start to imagine that your rich spirituality has something to do with your own excellence of soul, and only when you have to move away into a spiritual wasteland do you realize how dependent you were on the spirituality of others.  Likewise, as long as we have all the food and drink that we need, we forget that we even need it.  We forget that our ability to function, to do anything--to walk and run, to think and write clearly--depends first on the nourishment of our bodies by things outside us.  For academics like me, this temptation is all the more powerful.  The athlete is aware at all times of his bodily needs, but the academic can start to imagine that all he needs is his mind, and his mind is his own, his private domain, the accomplishments of which he can take full credit for.  He may eat three square meals a day so as not to feel a stomach-ache, but he doesn't really need them to do what he does, right? 

Until he doesn't have them.  Try skipping a couple meals, and then try to carry on an intellectual debate.  Try to write a paper.  How 'bout just reading a book with comprehension?  It doesn't take long at all without food before mental function starts to get cloudy, until the conceptual leaps one might ordinarily make with effortless facility become slow and arduous tasks.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We are not independent minds or spirits, communing with God and thinking deep thoughts all on our own.  We are embodied minds, minds that cannot so much as follow a syllogism without a regular supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  This is easy enough to forget as long as you have that regular supply, but by taking that away, Lenten fasting provides us a rude awakening--it brings us face-to-face with our own frailty, our humanity, our dependence.  

Lenten fasting, then, does not try to liberate us from the body, but reminds us that we are chained to it.  It does not encourage spiritual pride--on the contrary, it mocks the very notion, by reminding us that we cannot take credit for any of our accomplishments--we're hardly able to even think spiritual thoughts without the aid of dead plants and animals filling our stomachs multiple times a day.  Lent is not an ascetic exercise to take us away from earth on lofty flights into the third heaven; no, Lent brings us back down to earth, the earth of which we are inescapably a part.  Lent reminds us that we are creatures, dependent at all times on other creatures, and on God the creator of all.