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!