I was tempted to give Lent a miss this year, partly out of laziness and partly because the whole business of ‘giving up’ sets me off on a downward spiral of guilt, and thence to guilt-induced depression. Guilt is the great imposter when it comes to the real meaning and purpose of Lent, and I am not sure whether giving up alcohol or chocolate really makes any difference in this regard.
In surrendering material things, such as things we like to eat or drink, we experience hunger or thirst, usually to a very limited extent, but enough to serve as a reminder of what it must be like to not know where the next meal is coming from, or even if it will come at all. This feeling can of course return us to guilt, unless we are prepared to complement it with a different kind of surrendering, a surrendering that takes us first into the realm of human relationships or, when thought of in a far wider context, of human relatedness.
In both of these contexts, the familial and the global, surrendering has to do with the ‘letting go’ of forgiveness, a repeated ‘letting go’ of the things we would still like to do, say or think about someone who is hurting us, or who has hurt us in the past. This is where forgiving gets confused with ‘forgetting’. They are not the same thing and they do not necessarily belong together. Forgiving is about accepting ongoing pain, rather than pretending to ignore or forget it. All of this applies, in equal measure, to our forgiving of ourselves.
The forgiving process also involves bearing the ongoing pain of another person, group, or nation. We surrender to their existence and accept, or understand it, as we do our own. This may in turn permit us to conceive of the possibility that the other person or group is experiencing a similar reciprocity of pain.
Sooner or later, in regard to Brexit, we are all going to have to do something like this, whatever the final outcome. We are going to have to surrender into the pain of those who will wish that things had turned out differently. We will need to do this surrendering, not simply because as Christians it is required of us, but because we belong together as a single body, or nation.
From surrendering into the pain of the other we may begin to get an idea of what it is that has been tearing us apart as a nation, at a very deep level, long before the issue of Brexit arose, or even before we joined the EU. But it will not be possible to know what this destructive force is, let alone heal it, until we have all done the surrendering. Some imaginative re-thinking of history might help here.
This is possibly the closest we have come to civil war since the 17th century. There is something implacable about our entrenched attitudes which resonates in a disturbing way with those times. Our fears, and the attitudes they foment, feed other areas of distrust and hatred, all of them having to do with fear of the unknown ‘other’. In the last hundred years or less, our parents and grandparents saw what these fears and hatreds can burgeon into. At the same time, over-simplification of the truth about the past does not help to rebuild trust in the present. To speak too lightly of forgiveness in regard to the Second World War, for example, suggests appeasement, as was made clear at the time. Many would say that appeasing evil and bullying is not the work of forgiveness, and I would agree with them.
This returns us to the heart of the great Christian prayer, ‘forgive us as we forgive’. It can be helpful to think of these words as a plea to be forgiven in the manner that we forgive others, rather than to the extent that we forgive them. The latter tends to return us to guilt and leads nowhere. The manner that we are forgiven by God is his unconditional love for us wherever we happen to be at this moment on our own forgiveness journey, provided we have actually embarked on the journey. Perhaps simply holding the person, nation, political party, or group in God’s unconditional love is all that is required, and all that we are capable of, at the moment.