Monday, February 06, 2012

In the beginning was Septuagesima

It's Septuagesima again, so back to the beginning we go. Of course, for a Benedictine this is a daily occurrence - always we begin again.

The trouble with so many beginnings is that there are always a lot of loose ends to tie up. There are two beginnings in the Book of Genesis (ch i.1-ii.3 and ii.4-end) and of course the four beginnings of the Gospels notably that of St John. It may seem strange that we have these beginnings now at Septuagesima, but the time we get to Lent, we find ourselves at the reason why. Our Lenten fasting begins with the focus being squarely back on the Fall.

It doesn't matter how many beginnings we seem to have, we still seem to make a mess of it somehow. We wander off and find ourselves completely at odds with what God wants of us. As St Paul says, the will of the flesh is contrary to the will of the spirit and vice versa! Wouldn't it be easier if we could just jettison these sinful bodies and go off to heaven as disembodied spirits, freed from the lusts of the flesh which keep causing us to fall and fall hard?

The trouble is, this direction lies Gnosticism. Gnosticism separates spirit from flesh in an entirely draconian way. It does so because it fails to appreciate that God is actually happy with a material Creation, in fact Gnosticism demotes God to an imbecile for having created in the first place. Therein lies its heresy and its inherent breaking of the first commandment.

It's a fact that we still have Gnostic ideas floating around today, notably in the common understanding of death. The idea that when we die our soul floats up to heaven leaving our bodies behind doesn't really sit well with St Paul's notion of the corruptible body putting on the incorruptible.Both St Thomas Aquinas and the arch"dualist" Rene Descartes both viewed a human being as an indivisible fusion of body and soul - a psycho-physical unity. What this means when our body dies is uncertain - no-one can be sure of the geometry of death, save only Purgatory (more a rebuilding and re-formation) and the possibility of Heaven itself. However, the immortality of our souls is closely bound up with the fact that God remembers us, holds us in his mind and refuses to let go.

The fact that we have a body obviously does mean that it is a necessary part of us and we need to look after it as much as we look after our souls. Many people see Lent as an opportunity to flog poor "brother ass" with some unkind spiritual exercises of self-abnegation so that the soul can escape to higher planes. However, they forget that we are not just a spirit but a body too and that the health of one really does affect the health of the other. Do do Lent well, and to grow better in body and in soul, we need to prepare well. In some sense Septuagesima is the preparation for Lent which is the preparation for Easter. Boy, do we Christians do a lot of preparation!

In the Benedictine Tradition, each monk was supposed to speak with the abbot about their Lenten penance. The Gesimas provide the perfect opportunity for this to take place, to reflect on the nature of our lives and prepare ourselves to put right that which needs attention and to correct the imbalances that we have accrued since last Easter.

In bringing us back to the beginning, Septuagesima is inviting us to see where we should be. Of course, we should be in Eden walking in the Garden with God watching the Sun, Moon and Stars dance through the sky, enjoying the fresh breeze and looking after the animals. It's difficult for us really to see anything more than this picture of Eden and our idea of it may tend to cloy into a soppy Disney-style cartoon. This is because we have lost our sense of our beginnings through our Fall.

We now have the opportunity to reflect on our beginning and where we should be with God and see Lent as an opportunity for coming closer to Him. Yes, St Paul tells us that we need to discipline our bodies, but out of love, not out of a gnostic hatred. St Francis de Sales reminds us that while we are in this fallen state, we should not be surprised that we sin, but rather in seeking God's forgiveness we should learn to forgive our own weakness as well as those of our brethren and work to building up our souls and bodies together as one healthy unity.

So how do we begin to begin again?

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