The Postmodern Lent: Ever Ancient, Ever New

The concluding prayers of the Divine Office for the second Monday of Lent read that the Lord teaches us “to discipline the body for the good of the soul”. Very often this is framed in terms of mortification: depriving the body for spiritual nourishment.

After reading William Cavanaugh’s “Torture and Eucharist”, it is possible to give this prayer a postmodern twist, giving this ancient wisdom a new vitality.

The Old Testament demonstrates that the Jews have long realised the importance of providing mere “advice” for the mind, as if the soul were detached from the body. Indeed, because God made man in both spirit and flesh, great moments of conversion or other spiritual turning points were marked by rituals that acted on the body.

It is possible to apply this ancient wisdom to the current consumerist culture, a culture that not only trains minds to accept the quasi-eschatological mythology of retail salvation. Through the ritualistic actions of the 9-5, sunday shopping mall trips and credit card swiping, the body is taken up into the whole process of formation, so that consumerism is not just seared into the minds of the shopper, but the body as well. And when the body is habituated into rituals antithetical to a faith that hopes in a world yet to come, the soul is placed in turn placed into jeopardy. It is possible to to say that modern culture, dominated by the market, doesn’t just want your hippocket. It not only wants your body, it wants your soul as well.

Viewed this way, the point of convergence apparent in Jesus’ phrase “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” can be made clear. The body belongs to God’s as much as the soul does, and thus it too must be taken up into the process of salvation. The body is not ancilliary to this process. The doctrine of the Incarnation, and more recently, the late Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body have demonstrated quite clearly that the body is central to the process of salvation.

Viewed this way, lenten bodily mortifications are not just a sideshow preparing of the soul for the main event of heaven. Lent can also be a time to incarnate salvation within culture. In disciplining the body, the soul can be protected from the modern mythologies of market supremacy and atomistic self-hood that have created this all pervasive culture of death.

If both Cavanaugh and Daniel Bell are correct, Lent is given even greater significance given the ever growing series of intersection between the State and the Market. Lent, like Easter, is not just an excercise of spiritual conversion. Conversion must bring about a political dividend as well, for in the disciplining of the body, it proclaims in history another community apart from the market – the Kingdom of Heaven. It proclaims that the shopping mall and the fast food chain, the office, and ultimately the State, do not have a monopoly over our bodily lives, and thus our souls. Lenten disciplines create the space whereby the words “on earth as it is in heaven” can be made true.

Lent then cannot be just viewed as a six week anomaly, a long preparation for a short weekend festival, but the bedrock for a new political, and thus spiritual paradigm, that reaches far beyond the season, and far beyond our individual souls.

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