Meditation as fasting:
De-cluttering and re-focusing for Lent
The word “Lent” derives from the old English word for “spring” or “spring season.” It’s a period of preparation for new life, for all that we celebrate at Easter.
When we meditate, we are both preparing for new life and living the new life.
Lent is not about being unhappy or punishing ourselves. And if Lent can involve us deciding to say “No” to certain things, this is never about self-denial as an end in itself. Fasting is not about how much we eat. It’s not a religious weight-loss programme.
The primary purpose of fasting is to help de-clutter our mind and refocus our life. It’s about clearing a space within which our awareness of God can grow, within a simpler life of open, compassionate attentiveness.
So, too, with meditation. As Rowan Williams put it with startling clarity in his 2012 address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the contemplative life is “the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom — freedom from self-orientated, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.”
Fasting is about making ourselves more present, more available, to God and to each other, in the ordinariness of our day.
However small the occasion, whenever we say “No” to ourselves with this intention, we are fasting. And each “No” can be a prayer of gratefulness, a quiet “Yes” to God, acknowledging and encountering the gift of our life.
During our formal times of meditation, each time we notice we have become distracted and return to our practice is a small act of fasting. Our gentle “No” to a distracting thought is our “Yes” to the priceless gift we are ceaselessly receiving: God’s self-gift of himself.
We listen with the ear of our heart. We look past our own preoccupations. Why? So, we can hear each other, see each other, love each other.
The lectionary readings for the first Sunday of lent include the temptation of Jesus during his 40-day fast in the desert. How Jesus addressed the tempting thoughts was of foundational importance for the development of meditation in the Christian tradition.
The earliest generations of Christian contemplatives saw something of vital importance in how Jesus quoted lines of scripture to avoid being ensnared by each tempting thought.
They saw that by this simple means, he avoided our general tendency to respond to a thought (whether tempting or any other kind) by grasping and quickly wrapping it with a layer of reactive inner chatter, which most often has the immediate effect of firmly gluing our attention to it.
And so, the practice of quietly or silently repeating a phrase of scripture to help focus the attention and un-glue it from passing thoughts, became a common practice of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. How Jesus contended with thoughts during his fast in the desert, became the basis of our simple practice.
During our time of meditation, each time we notice we have become distracted and return to our practice is a small act of fasting, de-cluttering and re-focussing.
Our gentle “No” to a distracting thought is our “Yes” to the priceless gift we are ceaselessly receiving: God’s self-gift of himself.
We listen with the ear of our heart.
We look past our own preoccupations.
So, we can hear each other, see each other, love each other, and “be liberated…into the freedom of the glory of God’s children” — together.
“To learn contemplative practice”, writes Williams, “is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.”
It is to learn that love is the ground and purpose of our practice, that there is no beginning and no end outside of this.
 Romans 8:21.
 Rowan Williams, ibid.