A Bleak Start to Spring: the Joy of Asceticism

Today is the first day of spring, difficult to believe when there is a blizzard blowing and regular radio alerts to avoid unnecessary travel. It is also the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales, when we remember his dying exhortation to ‘be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things’ — or, if we are inconveniently historical-minded, remember also his gruelling asceticism, which involved monks pulling the plough themselves, drinking only water and living off bread and salt. The relationship between joy and asceticism is one many find strange; and looked at from the outside, I suppose it is. But from within, it makes pefect sense. Asceticism is a necessary discipline, though the particular forms it takes are variable.

During Lent the whole Church undergoes a kind of collective asceticism, with everyone trying to free themselves from the negligences of other times. Older writer used to call it the ‘spring-cleaning’ of the soul: a time when we get rid of the clutter and allow grace to do its work in us. I like the idea of Christian souls becoming more highly burnished with love and zeal the closer we get to Easter, but I admit it can be exhausting. By this stage of Lent our enthusiasm can be waning. The extra time to be spent in prayer is shrinking; the fasting has many exceptions; and almsgiving is on hold while the charity sector sorts itself out. It is, in truth, a bleak start to spring.

Bleak it may be, but it is spring nonetheless: a time of growth and preparation for future fruitfulness. The snow has beaten down the daffodils in the garden but they are still there, ready to straighten up once the cold wind has passed. The buds on the fruit trees are in suspended animation, but not for long. So too with us. We may be feeling a dip in fervour for the moment, but we keep our goal in sight. St Benedict loved Lent and wanted his monks’ lives always to have a Lenten quality. Like his near-contemporary St David, he saw the connection between asceticism and joy, or, as we might say today, the connection between self-discipline and true self-fulfilment. Without asceticism there can be no real love, no real joy. Stick at it!

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6 thoughts on “A Bleak Start to Spring: the Joy of Asceticism”

  1. Bless you, inconveniently historically minded; I am laughing? Not at all, you are absolutely right of course. St. David did ask those religious who followed him to copy his ascetic ways.
    For we non religous it is a question of the crumbs from under their table, which by God’s grace will bear unanticipated results 1429 years later.
    I wish you a thoroughly joyful St. Davids Day.

    • I hope I have not offended, that was not my intention; if so I apologise unreservedly.
      I was laughing because I knew you would pick up on the reality of St. Davids wishes, as indeed had I. Spiritually however, the little things can transform life and not all of us are capable of the big things; I have problems with even the little ones. I was excited this morning because although we are a rural church we were allowed to open it up to rough sleepers in need of shelter in this terrible weather. It was a little thing that even a sheep could manage.
      I do hope more of our churches will open for those in need
      of shelter, but keeping it simple, which would be a wonderful way to celebrate both today and Lent.
      Doing the little things is like crumbs from Dewi’s table, I hope that makes sense.

  2. Dear Sr Catherine and all,

    It resonates with me to think of Lent as being a kind of MOT, to fill up the oil and washer fluid, check the lights are indeed working, the moving parts oiled and the tyres pumped up, so as to have a vehicle (us) that functions as it was originally made to do/be.

    Keep warm everybody and heartfelt prayers for those who are struggling at this time.

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