Thursday, 10 March 2011

The green shoots of Lent

Lent is often seen as a time of self denial and self discipline; it can be approached with a mindset that emphasises the mortification of sinful desires and an attitude of mind that “oe’r its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.” On the other hand, and just as bad in my opinion, Lent can be reduced to a kind of formula for self improvement, a chance to detox the body and mind and feel rather good and self righteous into the bargain.

I do not like the idea of self imposed suffering, but I am glad we have Lent as a metaphor to express the deserts and wildernesses that we often experience. At the heart of the Christian faith is a focus on suffering, pain and anguish and this is powerful quite simply because suffering in all its forms is the greatest theological quandary. At the heart of Christianity there is a suffering God, one who experienced both intense anguish, but also the bleakness of the wilderness, hunger, loneliness and the temptation just to take an easier option.

Metaphors are all fine, but when it comes to the actual practicalities of Lent, I don’t approach it as a time of sackcloth and ashes. There is plenty of suffering in life without it being self imposed, I have learnt my lesson and I never give anything up and don’t spend a moment weeping with self loathing! I see Lent as a time for making room for God and an opportunity for growth. It also coincides with spring, and the idea of retreat to somewhere remote brings thoughts of peace and profound healing and, after so much turbulence, a still small voice of calm.


  1. I agree with what you are saying about there being too much suffering. I'm having a special Lent season this year. Every time I get anxious - and it happens far too often - I'm going to remember God saying he knew me and loved me in my mother's womb, then think of Jesus saying Don't be afraid. I am with you. Blessings to you.

  2. I think I would have been more successful as a monk if I had got the balance right between repentance and self-loathing. The really difficult issue anyone has to face if they take their spiritual life seriously, is that although we have ideas about the person we believe God wants us to be, we have to be very careful that this ‘person’ is not just an idealised ‘self’; where the bits we don’t like about ourselves have been removed, the inner tensions have ceased and we can rest in a place of self-indulgence, happy in the person we have become. This would be just a subtle form of idolatry, where the object of devotion is the ‘self’. Alas, narcissism is an all too frequent bed-fellow of religious practice and it takes some time and effort to identify this unwelcomed guest. Yet even when discovered, narcissism is able to morph into ever more subtle guises that becoming harder to unveil.

    I am loathed to give too much importance to Koine/Patristic Greek words. Far too often much is made of this or that word, when it is difficult to really know the full context or ‘discourse’ of the word or term at the time it was used. That said, I think the word ‘kairos’ (one of the two words for ‘time’ in Greek – and specifically means ‘opportunity’) can be linked with Lent. In that it is a season of ‘opportunity’. When I was at the monastery, it was usual to take your annual retreat during Lent. This consisted of a ten day break from community, in a small cottage in the community’s grounds. Unlike a ‘Summer Rest’ – also consisting of a ten day stay in the same cottage – it was a time of separation from the community and the daily routine of work and chores; and you could forego attending chapel for the Lesser Hours. Whereas a Summer Rest was a time of R&R and many brethren would have friends visit, go for long walks outside the Enclosure and generally have a far laxer relationship with the Rule and Customary (some brethren, instead of getting up at 4.30am for Vigils, would stay in bed until the slothful time of 6.30am and just make it in time for Lauds at 7am!! But that was verging on decadence!).

    Yet even a retreat was seen as a species of rest and despite the greater solitude and silence, there was time for walks in the woods around the monastery, a little bit of home cooking in the cottage kitchen and even an afternoon nap. The real strength of the retreat was that it afforded you the ‘opportunity’ of greater reflection and openness. The temptation for new recruits or guests taking such a retreat would be for hard fasts and hours of prayer – even cold baths; these could become a sure road to either disappointment or the vanity of narcissism. Too much effort, often motivated by the self wanting to feel better about itself – and sometimes augmented by the even more base temptation to feel superior to other less self-disciplined mere mortals, is a sure route to spiritual disaster. Fasts and flagellation can have their place, but the real need is to make space, a space for ‘opportunity’. If you’re beginning to feel a bit like Jack Horner, saying to yourself ‘What a good boy (or girl) am I!’ because of the depth of privation you have plumbed or the hours you’ve put in on your knees in prayer, then you’re doing it wrong and Lent is wasted on you. However, giving space for ‘kairos’ can bring rewards unlooked for – and these tend to be of a more genuine and lasting nature.



  3. You have had an interesting life S (not that it is over yet!:)
    I don't think I would be very good at 4.30 am starts, cold baths or hard fasting at all:)