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On Lent and “being alive when we die”

Whatever our Lenten discipline this year, the point and purpose remains: for all of us to allow brightness and liveliness to mark us and playfully to prepare us not just for Christ’s death and our own, but for the resurrection also.

(Image: Kamil Szumotalski/Unsplash.com)

D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971) differed from most clinicians of his generation by not rejecting his Christian upbringing. Unlike Freud’s famous (and jejune) dismissal of religion, Winnicott realized that images and notions of God come naturally to the human mind as a sign of healthy development of an individual moving from the ego-centred (and illusory) world of infancy out into the wider world of objective reality where God really does dwell. Eight years after his death, this insight was wonderfully developed by the Roman Catholic psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Ana-Maria Rizzutto, still alive in Boston today, in her groundbreaking and unjustly neglected 1979 book The Birth of the Living God.

In early February I showed here the ongoing usefulness of Winnicott to thinking about a major Christian feast. Today I want to draw on him again to think about the major Christian fast known as Lent, which is now upon us.

After his death, Winnicott’s wife wrote a moving essay about her husband’s rough draft of an autobiography he never finished. In there she comes across what she describes as DWW’s prayer: “Oh God! May I be alive when I die.” This paradoxical prayer has haunted me for a long time, but now I see it as a great summary of what we hope to achieve from Lent.

To pray that we be alive even as we are dying is a request that we not let our life peter out in dribs and drabs, slowly suffocated and snuffed out by sin. It expresses a hope and desire that we arrive at our transition into eternity alive, awake, and anticipating an adventure. Tired and creaky our aged physical bodies might be, our spirits should nonetheless be lithe and light, like children about to set out on a journey to the sea to build sandcastles in the sun.

Winnicott was famous for his work with children, healing some who were thought to be beyond help. And much of that help came through playing with kids. As his wife wrote after his death, he never ceased playing even with her in the very final days of their marriage.

Playfulness is not opposed to Lenten discipline. Indeed, it might be a more attractive way to think of what we do, lessening our dread at foregoing food and taking on extra works of charity and prayer. Playfulness, in fact, is very much in keeping with the gospel—see Mark 10:13-16—as well as Romano Guardini’s wonderful book The Spirit of the Liturgy, which Ignatius Press has kept in print and about which I wrote here.

Lenten “play” can make us more alive by, paradoxically, self-denial. We die to our desires for food not because we wish to punish ourselves, or because food is bad, but because food can lead us to satiation, and when satiated which of us wants to get up off the couch to run around or dive into the pool with the kids? All the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and great spiritual writers down through the ages, warn that satiation leads us to neglect God. It dulls our senses and ability to focus on the one thing needful (cf. Lk 10:38-42).

In my twenties, after becoming Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic and while still single, I took on the traditional Eastern fasting discipline, which meant I became vegan: all animal products and their derivatives (butter, cheese, etc.) were impermissible, and only one meal a day was taken, usually after the Lenten Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts which is held late in the day because it is basically Vespers with Holy Communion added on at the end.

It was tough, but worth it. I recall the great sense of clarity it gave me when receiving the Eucharist. After nearly twenty hours of fasting from food (I allowed myself coffee and liquids), the jolt of clarity and aliveness at receiving the Lord of life was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Here indeed was “the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51)!

Such an experience is really the whole purpose of Lent according to the late Alexander Schmemann, whose book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha remains the best volume on Lent I have ever read. Schmemann shows that fasting “rather than weakening us makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure.” Later on in his powerful little book, he coins a memorable phrase: Lent is a time of “bright sadness.”

Schmemann drew this phrase from the liturgical texts for Lent in the Byzantine tradition as when, for example, we are exhorted thus:

Let us receive the announcement of Lent with joy! The time of Lent is a time of gladness! With radiant purity and pure love, filled with resplendent prayer and all good deeds, let us sing with joy!

Since getting married and having kids, I found following the “traditional” strict fasting rule nearly impossible, and we, like almost everybody, make alterations to it. (Here I suggested a way for Eastern Christians to alter this practice but keep the spirit.) But whatever our Lenten discipline this year—a little or lot of fasting, abstinence, almsgiving, prayer, or other projects we take on, or delights we give up—the point and purpose remains: for all of us to allow brightness and liveliness to mark us and playfully to prepare us not just for Christ’s death and our own, but for the resurrection also.

Facing our death cannot be the task of a morose or melancholy Christian weighed down by despair. We can and should be alive at that most vital of moments for in Jesus Christ our living and dying end not in the desolation of a tomb, but in the celebration of upper room where the risen Lord awaits us at the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 94 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

2 Comments

  1. I am the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). He says [the] life as if life remains, but only one life is to be pursued for true life. Fasting sharpens apprehension as DeVille experienced. Our faculties encompass the spiritual by nature. That includes the sensible faculties hearing, taste, sight, touch because there is no sequence in actual time [only sequence in actualization] when the intellect apprehends by the senses. Aquinas calls it a quasi reflection of the soul, distinguishable as sensible perception. The actualization of the intellect in apprehension of things. Reception of the living Christ in the Holy Eucharist is a true transition from sensible sign to a most profound spiritual reality. When the intellect is less engaged in the physical including physical needs Man’s spiritual, apprehensive capacity is assuredly enhanced. Sharpened we ‘sense’ the spiritual the moment we receive. Our soul is our superior dimension within unity of spirit and matter. DeVille’s experience was repeated by friends, my own experience when fasting especially when in tandem with prayer especially silent prayer, when the sense faculties are relaxed. Being alive when dying is a literally true literally vital insight by Winnicott. The alternative to Life in Christ is eternal figurative death of the soul forever perishing in Hell. Lent taken seriously with renewed focus on the spiritual rather than the sensual is to decisively pursue Life.

    • Many far and wide read these articles and comments, many including Catholics with little or no knowledge of the realization of Christ’s presence to us in the Holy Eucharist. What we bring to the sacraments is faith and anticipation of graceful knowledge of a good, for example in Baptism an indelible signature upon the soul, a realization of reconciliation, and filial incorporation in Christ’s Mystical Body. Exceptional among all the sacraments the Holy Eucharist is different in kind, because of the Real Presence of a living Person Jesus Christ. A mystery that requires faith to satisfy spiritually including our belief in his Presence. Beyond this is what is given, the beneficence of Christ’s actual living touch, as it were the same healing hand upon the leper, the healing touch of his garment that healed many of illness and the daemonic, the spittle that returned sound and speech, that opened eyes that never perceived, the Living Flame of Love that assuaged the heart that never understood Love.

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