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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