Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An L-shaped Lent

 One of the ideas associated with Lent is that of detaching ourselves from the world and going to a place of isolation to be tested, just as Jesus did for those forty days and forty nights that we used to sing about in a particularly lugubrious hymn  that got us all in the mood for unrelenting misery when I was a child!  I think that now we tend to downplay this idea of Lent as a period spent fasting in a wilderness and replace it with more positive themes such as growth and renewal. I am actually very much in favour of this, but at the same time we should recognise that the wilderness is a profound metaphor and can be a location where we encounter God.
 I've been thinking recently about two books which could be seen as having a Lenten theme. One of these is The L-shaped room, written by Lynne Reid Banks in the 1960s and the other is The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad. Most people will have heard of these (very different) novels. The first tells the story of an unmarried pregnant woman who flees to the L-shaped room, a place which is her wilderness  but where she also learns empathy as well as suffering anguish, meets others who are marginalised, and finally reaches a place that involves greater self knowledge and acceptance. The L clearly stands for loneliness but also for life, learning and love, possibly all these L words represent the message of Lent.
         The Secret Sharer is a novel narrated by a young captain anxious about his first voyage. He rescues a fugitive called Leggat,  generally seen by critics to be his doppelganger, the part of himself that he fears but must both accept and transcend. The sea is the narrator's wilderness. Ironically, at the start of the story, he believes it will be a place of refuge,
"I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems."
But the sea, which  it is clear he has fled to in retreat from himself, actually forces him to confront himself. Isolated in the huge expanse of the ocean, he can no longer distract himself with all the busyness of life. Solitude forces himself to greater self knowledge, just as fleeing to the L-shaped room forces Reid Bank's narrator to know herself and others more deeply. Strangely enough, in The Secret Sharer the captain's cabin is also L-shaped. The L-shape symbolises our inability to completely know ourselves, part of the room is always hidden and it represents the things we need to discover.

 Wildernesses are often painful places to be, places of seeming exile, but paradoxically the wilderness often is the place where God and the self can be discovered.  I am not sure we should deliberately manafacture wildernesses in Lent or at any time. Most of things we sacrifice in Lent are token gestures  anyhow, but the wildernesses  and the sacrifices that we all face at different points in our lives can cause us to turn to God, to find that we belong to God and help us to learn surprising lessons about life and love.


  1. I think the wilderness can come upon us uninvited through those low points that happen along the way of life and these are often growth points in our relationship with God, though we may only see that in hindsight.

  2. I like what you say here. Growth often occurs at the edge of chaos. Thanks for this. I have been thinking on similar lines these last few days. There is a push and pull in Lent, whether from fellow travellers and as ever, liminal spaces and thin places are bound to cause turbulence. Holding the tension without getting totally submerged may be good but sometimes we need to be prepared to drown ! At other times we may be waving as we find ourselves surfing along the crest of a wave : the analogy of waves is a nice one for the peak experiences and the troughs are normal.

  3. Thank you both for commenting. I think both of you created excellent devotional blogs. I particularly like all the Lent resources you have Philomena. I won't have time to attend any sort of Lent course and will have to rely on private reflections (and blogging!) I particularly like and will probably continue to use the Ignatian retreat you've linked to.In fact I used the five steps of the Examen to structure my time at the Quaker meeting house this afternoon:)