Project Canterbury

Locust Street Letters

By Frank Lawrence Vernon

Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.




The Septuagesima Epistle and Gospel convey the assurance that spiritual effort never fails in achievement. The race is never uncertain. The fight is never futile. The toil is never without reward.

Saint Paul illustrates the point by reference to athletic contests. It is from the Greek word which means athletic exercise that we derive the word asceticism. This word has a religious meaning for us. I fear that it has a forbidding sound to many people. If it does sound forbidding it is because the religion which lies back of the word is not understood. As a matter of fact

the word asceticism is suggestive of struggle, of competition, of prizes to be won and the joy of satisfaction of the sense of victory fairly earned. There is in it the idea of the athlete’s thrill which makes training a recreation, and a gruelling contest an absorbing game. The spiritual combat is concerned with a spiritual prize. The splendor of the prize is fadeless. It is well worth the effort of the winning.

The objective point is the subdual of the flesh to the spirit. The prize is the poise which only a spirit-controlled body can sense. The spiritual athlete has the secret of the sheer joy of living. He knows hardship and revels in it. He knows the thrill of hard-won victory.

This spirit of joy is the note of Christian asceticism. Joy is the mark of the Christian Saint. The spiritual combat, for the Christian, is set for the attainment of full and free self-expression. But it is always the expression of the highest, the best, the perfect self. The self that has grown to be what it is by rigorous, intensive training is the only self which the Christian desires and esteems to be desirable.

Once attained or in process of being attained, there follows the freedom for the discovery of everything that makes life worth living.

Now all this is not so remote from the mass of ordinary people as might seem.

Ordinary people are intensely desirous of just this freedom and poise and happiness. Ordinary people are supremely discontented without it. The tragedy just at the moment is that in seeking it people are being badly taught. The teachers to whom they are tempted to turn, and to whom so many have actually turned, are persons who are insistently affirming that the path to freedom lies along the way of self-indulgence rather than self-discipline. If people would ask one simple question, the air would be cleared. The question is this. Whoever got anything or anywhere by self-indulgence? There is no doubt about the answer which would be given by any one who knows even a little about human nature. There is no doubt about the answer that would be given by any one who knows even a little about the world. But the difficulty lies in inducing people to take time to ask and answer the question.

I do not think they will until the meaning and the reward of self-discipline has been effectively set before them. Somehow or other they must be helped to see the joy of it. Perhaps they have only seen the rigors of the training, without ever, having been stimulated by the hope of the reward.

It is this blending of the satisfaction of the struggle and the joy of the reward which makes a sane and an attractive religion.

Only the stalwarts will be attracted at first. But once enlisted, we may look to those who are strong to support the weak.

Affectionately in Our Lord,

Project Canterbury