Sunday, 23 March 2014

Doing Lent badly

I'm not sure I am really that good at doing Lent. I've written before about how I prefer to see it as a time of growth and renewal rather than of deprivation and guilt. There are quite enough real Lents around without having to play act pain or suffering. I firmly resist doing things like giving up chocolate or alcohol just because I've tried it before an don't personally feel that brings me any closer to God.
What I do try to do in Lent is find a little time to read and pray regularly, and I sometimes pick a theme to meditate on throughout Lent. This year all of that has gone right out of the window simply because, having agreed to cover an absent colleague's classes, there's been no time to do anything. I had planned to mark the start of Lent, as I usually do, by attending the Ash Wednesday service in town but unfortunately I had a meeting on the same evening that didn't end until late. I guess it's not a good enough excuse.
So we were asked today in Church to think about what Jesus would make of our lives at this moment. I have no idea and I am not sure it is an easy question to answer. The gospels contain a warning about people who had looked at their lives through the human lens and genuinely thought they were doing pretty well. I am thinking of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other people - robbers, evildoers, adulterers or the tax collector or of the rich young ruler, who was probably looking for a bit of a pat on the back for having kept all the commandments, or of Peter when he asked how many times he should forgive, knowing he had the "right" answer.
 Lent shouldn't offer a lot of space for complacency, and one of my fears about it is that Lenten discipline can be in itself a kind of egotism- in fact how often do we reflect upon the real danger  that religious faith can be a cover for a sort of smug, self satisfied egotism, even when our intentions, our desire to be "good" is well meant?  So much of what we do is about ourselves and meeting our own needs even if that is the need to feel righteous or at least less guilty.What is asked of us is mercy and compassion over routine sacrifice and , while I like to fool myself that I am quite good at compassion, it hasn't yet led me to give all I own to the poor...
 Lent should strip us bare of  our masks and make us recognise how utterly inadequate we are, not because we need to wallow in guilt for the sake of it, more because we need to understand the reality of our collective and personal human frailty. As Jesus once said, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." Until we acknowledge that we all do Lent, and life, badly, we do not understand our need for the cross or the hope offered by an empty tomb.


  1. Alas, playing Little Jack Horner, is a frequent game of the religiously minded. Teresa of Avilla talks about this a good deal in the early chapters of Interior Castle – and in ‘Works’ too. As do many writers on spirituality (not just Christian). An admission anyone who is serious about spiritual growth has to make before they can move on, can be summed up in the words of the blessed Emily Bronte:

    ‘We must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering...’ (Spoken by Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights).

    Our desires are usually ego centric – and even a desire ‘to do good’ can be tainted to make the self feel better about the self... As George Eliot puts it:

    ‘We live from hand to mouth, most of us, with a small family of immediate desires; we do little else than snatch a morsel to satisfy the hungry brood, rarely thinking of seed-corn or the next year’s crop.’ (Mill on the Floss)

    As I am no longer a believer in the way I once was, it is difficult to provide advice on how to proceed selflessly on a spiritual path. However I think admission is half the battle. And in the above you admit that exercises in piety can also be exercises in pride and self-interest. Believe you me, this is a BIG STEP! Many of the devout never get to this point.

    A fellow PhD student, like me, used a participative methodology, conducting many interviews as well as ‘living the life’ (in her case, as a non-Muslim, attending a mosque’s women’s group for over a year – in my case working in two faith-based organisations and attending associated faith community churches for 18 months). One thing we both noticed in many of the interviews we conducted with the faithful (in my friend’s case with Muslims, in my case with Evangelical and Charismatic Baptist Christians) was how bloody narcissistic many of them were. Me, me, me... Oddly enough there is a good deal of social science research which backs up the idea that religiously minded people are more likely to be narcissistic than the wider population.

    The difficulty is to tread a via media between narcissism and hopelessness at the human condition. Humility is a good starting point. But the problem with humility is that it cannot be owned, or even experienced by the person being humble. True humility is without gratification. Alas, many people, esp. believers, have a habit of being proud of their humility.... Which of course is a sort of virtuous oxymoron!... ‘Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full....’ (cf. Matt 6:2). So the way forward is just to do the next thing, and not get overly concerned with either motive or outcome. Self-justification is often the pre-occupation of the pious. Fr Gilbert Shaw said that when you fail you should just say: ‘Sorry Lord, failed again, help me to do better next time...’ Anything else is just self-justification.

    Lent is about looking to the Cross – an emblem of true humility – humility so complete that Christ had no reward of pious, self-absorbed suffering, but stated plainly that he felt abandoned by God (Mark 15:34) (and if we’re being Trinitarian here, this meant a sundering of the self – entering into the hopeless of the separation of sin, denying the self access to the life-giving power of the Spirit). But this was done with trust, wrought in Love – and I’d suggest this is the template for Lent.

    If one is going to give up chocolate hobnobs for Lent, do it cheerfully – and keep it to oneself. Don’t try and over analyse this or that motive or feeling. A fruitful Lent should be ‘eucharistic’ in the true sense of the word – thanksgiving and prayer and not getting too bogged down in the me-ness of me...

  2. Nice to hear from you again. Hope you are doing OK.