Seeing Things: The New Ascetics

Just before the beginning of Lent this year, the Washington Post “Style” section, the guide to so much of what is really important to the movers and shakers in the nation’s capital, carried a curious story. It seems that, in preparation for her several appearances before the House impeachment managers during the Senate trial, Monica Lewinsky worked out with a personal trainer so that she could look her best on camera. The trainer herself described her work with Monica as that of a spiritual adviser and a “healer.” All this was reported with the utmost respect in one of our major news outlets, as if it revealed an island of sanity within the madness. And thereby hangs a tale of virtually everything that is wrong with our public media culture today.

For most of us, Lent is a time of taking a careful look at our sins and failings. We do not need to have much self-knowledge to recognize that a host of small imperfections and disordered attachments lie at the root of the larger problems in our lives. All the great spiritual writers tell us that our efforts to be good are only beginning when we leave our old sinful ways and try to follow the moral law of the Ten Commandments. To get even that far is no small achievement. But for real freedom from sin and its consequences, we also need to root out the habitual tendencies in the depths of our being toward slavery to what, in the most obvious sense, is not good for us. St. John of the Cross says that even one small attachment will keep us spiritually bound, like a bird that wants to fly but remains bound by a thread. It does not matter, he says, whether it’s a single thread or a heavy rope; our spirits are still deprived of the freedom that God intends us to have.

In many ways it is absurd to compare true spirituality with the practices we find all around us in our culture that aim at freedom and fulfillment. But however absurd, the comparison is illuminating.

As the Lewinsky case eminently demonstrates, even people confused and ignorant of the central truths about human existence retain a vague inkling that a better life somehow, somewhere, must exist. In the complex ways of the spiritual life, Lewsinky may not be as culpable as may first appear. To judge by stories about her family and upbringing, probably no one has ever suggested to her that real life, freedom, and happiness consist not in the gratification of impulse, but in the taming and channeling of impulses for the right ends. Her father, for instance, continues to think that Linda Tripp, not Lewinski’s own formation as a human being, is the source of all her woes. Bill Clinton, too, for this strangest of fathers, seems simply off the moral radar scope.

Our culture understands, for example, that we have to control our appetite for food and to exercise our bodies in order to be minimally healthy. Yet even that modest aim is daily being turned to self-centered purposes. When you can overlook the vast spiritual disorders that led to l’affaire Lewinsky and think it more important to look good on camera, it would take a fair-sized nuclear weapon to blast you out of your embrace of unreality and turn you toward a more authentic life.

Sadly, neither a personal trainer nor the indulgent interviews of Barbara Walters are likely to be of much service to poor Monica in the waning days of her celebrity. For either of them to raise the really difficult issues would be to edge dangerously close to “judging” her behavior. And our culture is hell-bent, literally, on making sure that we never even tell people when their self-destructive behavior is taking them toward the abyss. Our kindness and tolerance have thus become a kind of organized abuse of one another.

By contrast, the Church is often vilified in the media for her firm moral teaching. When the Holy Father came to St. Louis, the phrase “rigid and unbending views” appeared in almost every news story, even those that saw in one of the greatest men of the century many things to admire. But we might put the question to the critics: Would not Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, and the United States itself be better off if they spent more time, like John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and many ordinary believers, in true prayer and fasting and less time preening for the insatiable and unfeeling eye of the cameras? Jesus advised us that we will know people by their works. It may be “judgmental” to make the comparison, but by that standard, even in secular terms, it’s no contest.

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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