Practicing Lent in the Desert and Celtic Traditions

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.

This article is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.

After Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell that he immediately headed out into the desert wilds. Mark writes that he was driven by the Holy Spirit away from his familiar life into the barren rock and earth of the desert, whilst Matthew and Luke settle for the word “led”. There, he fasted for forty days and nights until, as Matthew writes with deadpan understatement, “he was hungry”. 

This week some people will have begun a forty day act of devotion in imitation of Jesus in the desert. The season of Lent is still broadly known in the church and beyond as a time for “giving things up” and people will have set themselves a range of goals and commitments in terms of what they choose to set aside for the six coming weeks.

The last hurrah of excess and revelry before Lent is known in some countries as ‘Carnival’, meaning “goodbye to meat” (“Carne-val”!!) whilst in Estonia one of the names for Easter Sunday is Lihavotted or “Meat Taking”. (We see you Estonia.) Many Christians from Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other church traditions will abstain from meat to some degree during Lent and I plan, by the time of publishing this post, to have started on a plant-based, vegan diet for the duration of Lent. 

By keeping a Lenten fast, contemporary seekers will not only be imitating Jesus’ time in the desert but will also be following in the footsteps of various well-loved Celtic saints (as well as forebears throughout the history of the world’s religious traditions). St Brendan and his companions consecrated their journey with a forty day fast, although they moderated their fast by completely abstaining from food for no more than three days at a time!

Similarly, St Cedd headed out into the Yorkshire wilds to fast and pray for the days of Lent on the site that would become his monastery at Lastingham, to clear the land of its bad karma before its consecration. This sense of spiritual struggle, where the ascetic efforts of the saints push back the forces of evil, also appears in the story of St Cuthbert, when he retreated to the offshore island of Inner Farne, which he found (according to Bede) inhabited by “evil spirits” before they were driven away by his piety.

However unsettling, or even alienating, these themes of combat against malign spiritual beings are to contemporary readers, the Celtic saints were in these practices very much the heirs and successors of the church traditions that preceded them. After all, the culmination of Jesus’ time in the wilderness was his confrontation with the temptations of the Devil, and the later desert tradition of the fourth and fifth centuries, itself one of the wellsprings of Celtic monasticism, also lived by similar imagery. So in the Life of St Anthony, the ‘first’ of the desert monastics in fourth century Egypt, his self discipline is also figuratively described as a battle against demons. 

The desert tradition does however ascribe these demons a very specific role in the spiritual life of the ascetic, which in turn interprets the mindset of the Celtic saints as they engaged in their own self discipline. Evagrius of Pontus was a clergyman from Asia Minor who fled the chaos of falling in love with a married woman to sit at the feet of the desert ascetics in Palestine and then in Egypt. He practiced what he learnt from these ascetics before writing down their wisdom in works including Praktikos and Antirrhetikos, or “Talking Back”.

In these works, following the view of the desert fathers, the demons are the source of prompts or suggestions, manifesting in the mind as ‘thoughts’ that may lead the ascetic into harmful acts that diminish the soul. These demons and their thoughts come in eight characteristic ‘flavours’ corresponding to faults such as misuse of food, misuse of sexuality, misuse of material possessions and so on. 

By the time John Cassian wrote his monastic handbook “The Institutes” based on the work of Evagrius, his view had already become more interior so that he more often refers to thoughts or passions than to demons, and he is on the way to a more psychological view where the demons of the desert and Celtic wilds are allegorical figures for the harmful impulses and prompting that might emerge from our subconscious minds. 

The ideal that the desert ascetics strove to achieve, which the monastics of the Celtic lands appear through their actions to have emulated, was an imperturbable state of equanimity. Athanasius paints a pen picture of this in the figure of St Anthony, when he emerges from his lengthy period of initiation as an anchorite.

“The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. Moreover when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated by being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.”

This state of equilibrium, where the passions, impulses and compulsions of the human soul are brought under the control of the watching consciousness, is not an ideal that is familiar in today’s culture. It is not however a state that implies any lack of emotion, feeling or spontaneity, it is rather a state where the soul is unencumbered, agile and most importantly at the ready disposal of the Holy Spirit. 

One of the main aims of fasting in these older traditions is to move the soul towards this state of equanimity. It is a question of detaching our focus and our trust from what is evident to our senses – the food on our plates – and realigning those faculties to the secret places, to the hidden recesses where the divine touches upon our souls

Jesus in the desert, despite the pain of an empty belly and flagging physical energies, famously affirms that the human person does not live on bread alone, but [also] “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. By fasting – by temporarily setting aside what is material and contingent – we can practice our perception and awareness of those deeper sources of life. 

Illustrating this, we find in John’s gospel the symbol of the abandoned water jar, left behind by the Samaritan at the well as she ran back to the town to tell her kinsfolk about her encounter with Jesus. This follows an exchange in which Jesus has just declared himself to her as the “Living Water”. The water jar is suddenly abandoned and forgotten when her eyes are opened to the deeper spiritual reality of which the refreshing and life-giving properties of the well water are only a sign. 

The self discipline and fasting of the desert mothers and fathers, the Celtic monastics and spiritual practitioners across the whole spectrum of world religions, are in this way not an end to themselves.  Fasting is a deliberate preparation for, and means of achieving, we are told by tradition, this change of perception.

By temporarily setting aside the tangible necessities of life (within the limits afforded to us by our health and physical condition) in order to re-focus on the intangible wellsprings of divine life within us, we cultivate an awareness of these that in our maturity we will be able to maintain regardless of our physical circumstances. John Cassian indeed referred to the resulting equanimity as ‘purity of heart’, which is picked up by modern authors such as Cynthia Bourgeault, with the implication that those who possess it, as said in the Beatitudes, might have their eyes opened to the divine.  

In more modern language, “where thoughts subside, God emerges,” writes Mary Funk. “The river must be still to reflect the full moon,” says the familiar metaphor that you will see attributed to Thich Nhat Than, Rumi, Helder Camara and many others.

The Holy Spirit is like a timid bird, easily startled, who will shy away at any too violent movement of the soul, and the practice of fasting is understood to be part of the toolbox by which our soul can be brought to order. Or, to put it another way, reaching the pinnacle of Christian self-discipline is not the end of the journey but the place, CS Lewis wrote, where “… the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are done away and the rest is a matter of flying.”

So sisters and brothers, if you feel called to explore this path of discipline and self discovery, move forward with wisdom and love. If you can, draw on a wise friend or mentor to share the journey with you for it is better not to walk alone. Wrap yourself with love, starting with a healthy love of self for the practice is not about self-punishment but is a means of looking within. Let divine love wrap around you for the only purpose here is your quest to know the divine more fully. Do not be ashamed when you struggle and fail because the struggle, in part, is that which will remove what is false from your soul. 

And may you fly.

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