“I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things.”
Socrates in Plato’s Apology
Saying ‘no’ to some things has great importance in life because we want to say ‘yes’ to something else. This is rooted in the way things are.
The Christian observance of Lent is multi-faceted, and is likewise rooted in the way things are. Long experience has shown that certain practices are key means of helping us become ourselves. Though at times we would rather not face it, becoming who we should be is a life-long and highly intentional project.
In his great ‘apology’ or defense of his life, Socrates gives a life-principle that echoes through the ages because it goes to the heart of human life. The issue is not just what we believe or think to be most important; it is whether we choose to live as though what is most important actually is most important. So simple, so challenging.
Socrates’ reproach, which surely speaks to all of us, gives basis for serious self-examination as well as for resolving on certain courses of action. There are less important things that loom too large for us, in our hearts, desires, and choices. They are not themselves bad, but they are definitively less important. And the further reality is that they can tend to squeeze out our attention to what is more important. Therein arises the challenge and the drama.
Saying yes to the more important things demands our saying no—in varying degrees—to other things in our life.
We don’t want to see this, and we certainly aren’t inclined to act on it. Socrates observed this with clarity. And so there is Lent. The gift of Lent. Here is an opportunity to take stock of the order, the hierarchy in our lives. Each of us lives each day according to some hierarchy—often one that in varying degrees does not correspond to the hierarchy we hold in our minds to be true.
How might we take up certain practices—including simply saying some no’s, at least for a time—in service of re-ordering our days, in view of the root yes’s that give meaning and direction in our life? Asking and answering this question is a great gift of Lent.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Apology is his account of the trial of Socrates, at which he was present.
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