Adult Afresh: Lenten Asceticism in Chapter 16 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

As we’ve already noticed, Christmas easily becomes a child-centric  celebration. Not so Lent! What kid can easily be induced to forgo getting things for six whole weeks, let alone take up a practice like giving their precious treasures away? In her recollections of childhood lent exercises, Chittister states starkly that this “was about spirituality become adult.” Whether we are young or old, Lent is remorseless in posing one central question to us all: “If life is not about permanent and continual self-satisfaction, what is it about?” Indeed.

But as she has already intimated in chapter 15, Lent is also a voice calling us to live newly (no matter what our life has been like until now), to live fully, to live in the hope and light of promised mercy, guaranteed new life. In other words, Lent is supposed to be a gift to us of all the fresh-faced, open-skied, hopeful-futured possibility of youth. Even to us jaded ‘adults’.

So how is this rejuvenation to be achieved? According to Chittister, Lent is “our salvation from the depths of nothingness. It is our guide to the more of life.” The ascetic discipline it proffers is to “concentrate the soul, viselike, on the center of life rather than on its peripherals.” It is “the gift of self-conquest.” It seems that Lenten self-denial is about replacing the triviality in our lives with purpose, filling our inner emptiness with a new fullness, and substituting freedom in place of our slavery and addiction to various sins.

Lent’s renunciation, then, requires courage from us in order that it may work its magic. Courage, to acknowledge that life is too short and too fragile to be wasted the way I’ve been wasting it (hence the mortality-reminder on Ash Wednesday). Courage, to admit that too much of what I fill my life with is just a papering over of my inner emptiness, of a heart forgetful of grace, of calling, of missional purpose. Courage, to admit that I still need salvation from my home-made crutches and addictions and mis-placed priorities.

In return, the very practice of renunciation instils us with many gifts. In it we find faith, the daring to believe anew that I need less than I think of creation’s good things, because I am in fact the Creator’s friend. And hope, hope that by God’s mighty immanent grace, today can still be that better day, the day of Kingdom Come – and so I need not pin my hopes for ‘a better life’ on the next indulgence, the next vacation, the next tv programme or bit of human recognition. Asceticism, in short, is a form of training, training to say ‘no’ to my small-god-self, to depose myself in order to make way for others, for Another. It frees me from my tiny wisdom, my limited will. It frees my gifts to benefit more than just me. It frees and clears my consciousness for the very ‘contemplation’ that Ordinary Time calls me to (see chapter 15).

In Lent, it seems, it turns out that the true children (the hopeful, the liberated) are those who have ‘grown up’ via renunciation. How true does this picture of Lent ring for you? What practices have helped you ‘grow up’ in these ways in Lent seasons past? What kind of helps have enabled you to persist in the face of much temptation?


  1. Well said, Ian. I love the image of the maturing effect of renunciation – particularly, in a culture where life seems to be all about satisfying every craving.

    For me, Lenten fasts have mostly pointed out how utterly weak and mindless I can be about choices I make on a daily basis. One example: one year I decided to give up bread for Lent, partaking only on Sundays, including Eucharist. On the second day of Lent, I was out for lunch with my nephews and we were discussing our Lenten practices. As I finished my SANDWICH, it came around to my turn… at which point I realized how easily I had both forgotten and utterly broken my fast. :) Lent helps me learn one lesson over and over again – not to take myself too seriously. I suppose that’s a good lesson for anyone who’s trying to grow up in their faith.


    1. I believe not taking ourselves too seriously IS growing up in our faith – really, is there much more to it than that? It’s a pretty good working definition of ‘appropriate creatureliness’, after all…


  2. “The gift of self-conquest” – oh how I would love to receive that gift. Like most spiritual gifts, however, I have to both ask for it AND reach for it. This is a great summary, Ian, of Chittister’s picture of Lents adult spirituality that teaches the revitalization of youth. I was given the opportunity to preach on Transfiguration Sunday this year ( I’ve read the story a hundred times, but as I researched for my sermon, I was struck by the weight of expectations that the Transfiguration narrative and its surrounding passages contain. The Pharisees expect a Messiah that will be a powerful spiritual and military leader – probably a leader that will place them in positions of power – and so miss the signs of Christ. The disciples expect much the same thing, although they manage to recognize the signs. Jesus, however, expects the cross. It occurred to me that Lent – as you say “a form of training, training to say ‘no’ to my small-god-self, to depose myself in order to make way for others, for Another” – realigns our expectations with those of Christ.


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