Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful book on Great Lent has a gem of an insight into the embodied character of what we do in Lent:
Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body.
The body, he says, is ‘glorious’ and ‘holy’ and Lent is a time for the restoration of the whole person so that we recognise the true purpose of our bodies, which is ‘the expression and the life of spirit, the temple of the priceless human soul’. For Schmemann, the best expression of this reality in the time of Lent is through the repeated prostrations that characterise the Prayer of St Ephrem. While this may look like an act of abasement, I think it feels rather different – more like an act of grounding, of humility, of contact with the earth from which we are made. It also feels like an act of centring, of gathering our scattered selves together into one. This perfectly expresses the Prayer of St Ephrem’s contrast between sloth and despondency on the one hand, and chastity and humility on the other. Our greatest weakness as human beings is not so much malevolence as the dissipation of our minds and energies. Busyness, neglect, inattention and timidity are far more dangerous to us than the more obvious candidates. And neither is the remedy spectacular: it is a gathered mind, a reconnection of body and soul, the practice of attentiveness and a quiet resolve. Schmemann suggests that these characteristics are aided by the monotony of Lenten worship. It’s not often that you hear anyone praising monotony in worship, but I think he has a point! Lent is an opportunity to turn down the spiritual temperature of worship and prayer, to tone down its colour, to emphasise simplicity and repetition so that worship ceases to be a source of ‘interest’ and becomes instead a vehicle for recollection and quiet stability of mind. All of this is helped by some simple physical practices such as the understimulation of our senses of taste (a simpler diet) and hearing (plainer music in worship), the prostrations in prayer that we already mentioned and the daily practice of stillness in prayer – we choose to stay put in the face of whatever reality comes our way. In a curious way, these practices form not only a preparation for the feasting of Easter, but also a foretaste of the Paschal life, for we undertake the journey to Pascha as those who are already one with Christ in his resurrection through our baptism. The practice of Lent is a workshop in which we hone the skills of that paschal new life in which we are restored to ourselves, body and soul.