It’s Advent, so I have been bearing penitence in mind. This is made the easier for me by my Advent vows: no alcohol, sweets, grains, or nuts (that last one is a killer). The fact that I may not have these things reminds me from time to time, every day, that it is Advent, Christ is coming, and I am preparing by fasting, a bit. All of which is a way to remind myself to be a bit more pure in heart, so as to be a more fit participant in the mystery of Christmas.
Fasting and other forms of ascesis are like artificial difficulties, self-consciously undertaken. Like difficulties or problems in general, they force us to turn our conscious attention to the order of the self, whether in respect to our understandings, our principles or our policies. Attend consciously to any aspect of yourself and it will certainly begin to change. Consciousness seems above all to function as the engine of neural reorganization. Try it – attend closely to the way you walk, and you’ll change it (this generally involves some stumbling or clumsiness).
This is why the talking cure can truly work: it brings material to conscious awareness. It is why aviators and sailors keep logs; ditto for athletes, dieters and contemplatives. Bring a problem in the way that you do things to your conscious awareness, and it will be operated upon, albeit sloppily, or at least not predictably. If however the operations are undertaken with a view to improvement (as is generally the case when they are logged, or intended) then they are somewhat more likely to be beneficent. If not, not. If all you are doing is messing with yourself, as, say, with psychoactive drugs, you are likely to leave a mess.
There are little problems and big. At the big end of the scale are crises. These have the capacity for radical reorganization of the person; for catharsis, literally “purification.” Reformations do not reliably produce increases of virtue – and, ergo, of happiness – but they are not uncommon. It is amazing how magnanimous and sagacious people can be in the grip of a disaster. We tend to rise to meet the challenges we find we must face.
Crises prompt us to test first whether we are internally consistent, and second whether we agree with reality. There is nothing like a crisis to generate catharsis, but any significant novelty or stress can have the same effects. That is why we go away on vacation or retreat, and seek out danger and discomfort in the wilderness. The same dynamic is behind our enjoyment of theater, fiction, movies, even riotous Dionysian orgies of dance fuelled by alcohol, and set apart from normal life by the special ritual attire of parties.
The liturgy of the Mass is likewise (when really partaken) a time away from quotidian life, in which we may be reformed and corrected under the acid fire of our simple conscious attention to what is most important and most real, and may seek (we know not how) to order ourselves more faithfully thereto.
But coping with novelty and stress is difficult and uncomfortable, so we avoid it if we can. People rise to meet inevitable challenges, when there is no real alternative, but they prefer to shirk the evitable (enjoyment of exercise, camping, or Mass, of the sort for which the adept begins to hanker, is an acquired taste). Prosperity makes that easier, because it shelters us from most of the normal sorts of adversity that our ancestors took for granted, and that forced them to make continual adjustments to themselves. But this just means that prosperity allows us to go on longer without the tiny corrections of course, prompted by small crises, that would otherwise keep us on track to prosperity. It sets up a crash.
One of the reasons church folks do better in life – even those who practice mere Churchianity – is that they regularly engage in soft reboots. They are just a bit less likely to get strung out and commit a fatal error.
Crisis is like a reboot. Electroconvulsive therapy is an extreme example. There are soft reboots, like a vacation that “really takes you out of yourself,” and hard reboots, like hitting bottom for the alcoholic. And there are system crashes, such as near death experiences or the loss of one’s family. They can result in major beneficent reformations. Rites of passage generally put the initiate through something that seems to him like a near death experience. I have often wondered whether the binding of Isaac was such a rite.
Wish I could have a whiskey and a bowl full of nice cashews.