I admire those who can claim that Lent is a time of renewal and refreshment. Right now, I doubt many of us can think of it in that way, if we’re honest about it. We have had almost a year of Lenten privation, but without the sense of joyful anticipation and purpose that should normally accompany this season. People are too tired, discouraged and generally fed up to be able to take on Lent. But the season is upon us, so what are we to do with it?
Here I’m not just writing what I imagine a lot of Christians are feeling. I also sense that many people look forward, if those are the right words, to a period of abstinence in the calendar year. We all need to get a grip on ourselves from time to time and Lent provides us with an ideal opportunity to do this. But right now many of us simply don’t have the emotional reserves to do it.
This being said, I think there is more than one way to think of Lent and to set about making the best of it. The first consists in braving out the inevitable feelings of guilt and worthlessness that accompany this season, however we choose to think of it. If I give something up and after a couple of weeks give up on giving up, I feel bad. If I banish Lent altogether and pretend to ignore it, after a couple of weeks I feel just as bad and, added to that, I also feel I’m missing out on something positive and good. This year, the last thing we need to be feeling is guilt but we don’t need self-induced ‘feel good’ techniques either, as these seldom work even at the best of times.
In these times of deprivation there are three things that we really do need: companionship, a sense of purpose for our lives and the experience of hope. Given the present circumstances, I don’t think giving things up, aiming at spiritual goals that are way beyond our capabilities, even when we are at our best, and generally trying to become someone that we’re not, are going to deliver on any of these fronts. So why not try something more modest, and more humble this year?
Christians reading this post will remember that Jesus tells us to take upon himself his ‘yoke’ which, he says, ‘is easy’ and in doing so to pattern our lives on his gentleness and humility of heart. You may think that this is a soft option, but it is in fact quite hard. For one thing, it will not give you anything much to feel pleased about in regard to having achieved anything, because the point of the exercise has nothing to do with achievement. The ‘yoke’ is the Cross which, at face value, is the opposite of achievement. It is the sum total of failure, all of our failures, both real and imagined.
So we could spend some time this Lent unpacking our ‘failures’, sorting the real from the imagined. I think we’ll find that most of these failures will prove to have been imagined and should be binned. The space they leave could then be filled with gratitude for the realisation that we are not failures. This will be quite a difficult exercise for some of us to do. If we can stay with it for long enough, we might also take the opportunity to thank God for the fact that we are talented, marvellous, beautiful and in every way loved. Again, quite a difficult exercise.
Another thing we could be owning this Lent is our sense of loss. We are experiencing loss on any number of fronts, but what we are most experiencing is the loss of companionship. We are all lonely. Even people who have family or partners with them are experiencing loneliness and loss. Being cooped up with the same person or people for months on end can be a lonely thing to experience. So during Lent, we could practice being in solidarity with other lonely people. We might even begin with those closest to us. How often in a single day do we ask our partner what they have been doing, how their work is going and engage with it intelligently? Do we notice if they look particularly down? Do we lovingly encourage them with a joke or a gentle reminder of how valuable they are to us? All of this has to do with being in solidarity with the lonely.
I wrote about solidarity last week in the context of prisons. We are all, up to a point, prisoners of the Covid pandemic. We are prisoners in our own homes, but also prisoners of uncertainty about the future and all the anxieties and stresses which that places on us. Being in solidarity with the lonely means being present to the anxieties and stresses that pertain to the particular kind of loneliness that others may be experiencing. We get out of our feelings about our own situation in order to enter into what others may be going through and keep company with them in it for a few minutes every day. Having done this with those close to us, we can also do it for people we will never meet. We can hold them (thinking of them as individuals rather than as a broad category) and their experience of loss and loneliness, even as we are held in our own loneliness, in the love of God.
The sense of purpose and hope that I spoke of are, I think, bound up with what comes out of the Lenten exercises involving gratitude and solidarity with others. To start with gratitude: It is only when you thank someone for something that, in a sense, you truly receive what it is you are thanking them for. The gift becomes a reality in the word or gesture of gratitude. If we are never grateful for anything, we never fully receive the blessings and gifts bestowed on us – which returns me to the discussion about failure. If we can’t bring ourselves to own our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, and be thankful for them, we will never learn how to deploy them in a way that becomes a blessing for others and which also honours God.
This takes us back to solidarity. Being a blessing for others involves giving. Lenten giving can also be a source of guilt and a general sense of failure, but if we learn to be a blessing to others in gratitude for what we are and for what we have, it will very quickly be made clear to us who are the people or situations most in need of our material giving, be it money or any other kind of material asset.
Having followed this meandering Lenten thread to its conclusion, we arrive first at the Cross, which is God’s absorbing of all that we hate about ourselves, and then at the empty tomb where we are met by the Risen Christ who is the embodiment of Hope. We don’t have to wait until Easter Day to experience this Hope, because it is not an event that we look forward to as a reward for having done Lent properly. It is with us now, in the moment of hearing our name called from within the silent space that these Lenten exercises has created in our own hearts.