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The Beauty of Lent: Giving Up the Good for the Greater

In ancient Egypt there lived an abbess named Sarah. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers reports of her that “for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.”

As someone who loves all the sights of this world that God created good and beautiful (Genesis 1), it took me a long time to have some inkling why ancient Christians would find this story admirable. Did Sarah not appreciate the goodness of creation? Did she have an unhealthy, negative assessment of the material world?

We don’t know the answer. There is no more to the story. But I’ve come to see that there is another way of understanding it that gets at the heart of Lent.

First, the story would not be considered an ascetic feat if the abbess didn’t appreciate the water’s beauty. Otherwise, how would her abstinence be a sacrifice? It wouldn’t be an achievement for her to keep herself from looking at something she didn’t actually want to look at.

This highlights the importance of fasting as sacrifice. It isn’t a diet. It isn’t the same as giving up a bad habit that we want to get rid of in the first place, like smoking. (Though quitting is a good thing!) Fasting, rather, is about giving up something that is good for something that is greater.

Thus, second, Sarah “never looked down” at created beauty because she (metaphorically) always looked up to uncreated beauty. She had fixed the eyes of her heart on God.

This is why Christians fast—not because they believe the material world to be bad, but because they believe God to be better. In Lent, Pope St. Leo the Great taught, we strive to “feel something of the Cross at the time of the Lord’s Passion.” Why? “to be found partakers also of Christ’s Resurrection, and ‘pass from death unto life,’ while we are in this body.”

Last, fasting prompts us to meditate on Christ, who is Beauty incarnate, and who yet for our salvation had “no [earthly] beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2). Sarah understood the paradigm shift this calls for: Resurrected life only comes through dying to this life daily. To see that Beauty, we must become its image.

So we fast and sacrifice truly good things in this life in order that, even “while we are in this body,” we might taste something of the joy of eternal life.

Further Reading

Mentions of Sarah in Sayings of the Desert Fathers (search for “Sarah”)

Dylan Pahman’s Beauty Unseen

Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermon On the Resurrection

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for the Study of Eastern Christian Life and Culture. Read more of his writing on the spiritual life at Everyday Asceticism.

 

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  • Ralph Coelho

    What about St. John’s advice to be in the world but not of it. That is the real choice that is more difficult than asceticism. This is also relevant in a world where democracies vote to legitimise practices of pleasure that have been held to be harmful by previous governments.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Actually, I think St. John means asceticism when he talks about being in the world but not of it. Asceticism is not restricted to monasticism but a calling of all Christians to deny themselves daily through spiritual disciplines in order to cultivate virtue and communion with God.

      As for governments, I think they can practice asceticism by learning to deny themselves as well, always asking the question, “Does the government really need to do this?” before passing any new law or creating any new department or program. In some (but not all!) cases that may mean to legalize practices that are not morally advisable but should not, for that, necessarily be the responsibility of the state to try to police. By denying itself, a government makes more room for self-government by virtuous citizens and associations and saves valuable resources that can then be better used for the common good.

  • Ralph Coelho

    I do not agree with your definition of asceticism. Just as Jesus mixed with the sinners who need a doctor so one is an ascetic who eats with them but not as a glutton, who demonstrates that one can communicate without bad language, one can receive and talk to a fallen woman.
    The asceticism you talk of is avoiding the danger to oneself and the issue. Democratic governments respond to the will of the people and I don’t see the day people will vote asceticism.
    I am reminded of the 1960s that offered values as an alternative to ethics derived from religion to avoid conflict by instituting values determined and installed by intelligent people. The Church was probably the single largest institution to legitimise this system. We know that what are called values are essentially relativistic, suited to the current situation.
    Therefore I propose acknowledging the existence of the many offerings that make for pleasure and publicly choosing not to enjoy them because they are good in themselves but can lead to physical,mental and spiritual disease. Lent is a time to test such rejection of pleasure leading to a decision to practice them permanently.