What To Do About Lent

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?

            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.

Lent – What It’s Not

I would like to think that Lent will correspond with what is going on in my veg garden. A time to be weeded of old attitudes of mind and of the things that obstruct love.

I have decided this year, that Lent should focus on what it’s not about. In case anyone is wondering whether that means forget about giving things up, you’re right – in a way. I’m going to focus on not giving up in order to arrive, by grace, at a place where I can begin to give things up, specifically those attitudes of mind and ingrained habits of control that normally govern the business of giving things up for Lent, leaving no space whatsoever for seeking a deeper relationship with God.

Since these attitudes are largely governed by anxiety, as they no doubt are for many people, I shall try to live from within a single short text: ‘Do not be anxious. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Matt 6:33) I do not think that the things that are being promised have much to do with mastering the art of self-control, although that might eventually reveal itself to be directly related to them, as a benefit or by-product.

Rather, they have everything to do with letting go of obsessive control in order to allow God to simply love us as his own, in his own way and on his own terms. Anxiety about giving things up and trying to be a better person gets in the way of this allowing, especially when the two appear to be interdependent. In other words, when you believe that you are only good when you give up the things you said you would, and when you can only manage this giving up if you are an inherently strong, spiritual, self-aware person – or any or all of the above. When this happens Lent turns into a cycle of self-recrimination leading to self-hatred and a sense of hopelessness.

Lent can be very conducive to self-hatred, and even to self-abuse. There is a vaguely punitive sub-agenda that can take over when it comes to giving things up or taking things on. It is as if God will be appeased in some way by our narrowly obsessive attitudes to foregoing chocolate, wine or cake, or that he will be gratified by our guilt-driven acts of false kindness to people we don’t like or relatives we’ve neglected.  

It’s also as if getting through the 40 days of Lent by giving something up, or striving to do something that requires some careful self-examination before embarking on it, is going to somehow make the world a happier place. That will only happen when these things are undertaken in love, and love is not something that can be summoned from nowhere, through rigorous acts of wrong headed self-denial.  It’s also as well to know from the start that we will fail at most of them and thereby end up hating ourselves while experiencing a mixture of shame and anger in regard to a God who is the cause of all this giving up in the first place.

All of these negative and conflicted feelings will be felt closer to home by those we live and work with. Failure brings shame and self-recrimination often expressed in ill temper and resentment, which is in turn fuelled by anxiety and loss of sleep. It seems to me that all this shame and anger-inducing activity is not what Lent is for.

I like to think of Lent as I contemplate the state of my vegetable garden at this time of year. There are a few weeds that need digging up. Most of them have been left by the birds. Given the heavy rain that we’ve had, a great deal of pre-seasonal care and attention is going to be needed if the garden is going to be able to produce anything at all this summer. The soil is sodden and, as a result, utterly starved of nutrients. If I can find enough black plastic I shall cover it over for the next few weeks (keeping the plastic to use again next year) until these vicious storms have passed and it has had a chance to dry out a bit. This will also protect it from rabbits and birds, as well as providing refuge for the frogs and toads who may have become disorientated in the surrounding wet, and wandered from the pond.

I would like to think that Lent will correspond in some measure to what is going on in the veg garden. Might it be a time for allowing myself to be weeded of old attitudes of mind which have, in any case, become rather worn and sodden with the passing of time and with the vicissitudes of this rather difficult year? As St. Paul says, we are God’s garden, so it is not us who do the weeding. (1 Cor. 3:9) From this, I think it is safe to deduce that the order for Lent ought to be one of allowing ourselves to be tended to and thus, the hardest thing of all for many of us, to live constantly in a place of vulnerability to God’s love.

By this I mean that we should consciously ‘will’ ourselves into a place of openness to that love. Many of us find this hard, which is why I say it should be done consciously and wilfully. It is hard because it brings us to a place of having to own that as far as God is concerned, we are worthy of love, not because we have done anything, or given anything up, but simply because we are seen in exactly the same light as God sees His Christ. He sees Christ in us. And we bear Christ in us to the extent that we allow him entry to the deepest and most secret place of our own personhood. Only in allowing him entry can we begin to be transformed in our attitudes to ourselves and to others.

At first, this will be a conscious and deliberate exercise in getting out of the way, in not obstructing God’s love out of a general sense of unworthiness, shame or even anger. Another name for this non-obstruction might be self-denial. Later this act of self-denial will become so much a part of us that it will be no more noticeable than our breathing. It will transform us. This transformation process will be painful only as and when it needs to be, but the pain will be lessened in inverse proportion to the extent that we allow ourselves to know that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and always will be, whatever we decide to give up.

You could say, then, that this gives us permission to be and do whatever we like with ourselves, our lives and the lives of other people, not to mention the planet we inhabit. But the snag here is that if you are consciously allowing, or taking in, the love of another, it would be ridiculous to pretend that in that same moment you would wilfully exploit or destroy those other people and living things that are precious to that person. In the moment of allowing ourselves to be loved by God, at the deepest level of our inner being, we literally ‘give up’ the things that make for violence and hatred in all its manifestations. This, I believe is the meaning and purpose of Lent.

As We Forgive

 

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.