Preparing for Lent 4

The three traditional penances of Lent are

  • prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
  • fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
  • almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.

St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.

Prayer
When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.

Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina,  but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.

Fasting
Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.

Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.

Almsgiving
With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.

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Preparing for Lent 2017

I always think of Lent with joy. It is a time when we live with great simplicity, returning to our ‘primitive observance’. Everything superfluous is stripped away and we are able to renew our early zeal. In previous years I have written about St Benedict’s view of the subject and various aspects of the traditional Lenten disciplines (see links at the end of this post).  This year, I thought I’d try a slightly different approach, but a word of caution first. If you are happy with Lent as you have always thought of it, and intending to do much the same things as you always have, don’t, for one minute, think that your offerings will not be pleasing to God. Whatever you do for love of him, whether your sacrifices be great or small, is truly acceptable. It is your love that God desires, nothing more, nothing less. This post is for those who feel the well has gone a little dry and would welcome a few thoughts from a fellow-pilgrim.

My starting-point is the question: what is Lent for? The only ansewer I find convincing is that Lent is for drawing closer to God, opening ourselves up to the grace he intends for us. Some honest reflection is needed as soon as we say that because we all know there are aspects of our lives that can prove obstacles to grace. They are not necessarily all bad things, either. Misplaced zeal can have consequences almost as deadly as deliberate sin; so can a tendency to exaggerate our wickedness. What we do see as faults may be no such thing, but most of us have an innate sense of some of our attitudes or behaviours not being quite what they should. With the help of our confessor or a wise friend, we may be able to penetrate more deeply into the origins of what is wrong. Then we must pray that we may be open to the grace of conversion, of metanoia; but we should not be surprised if, at some stage, we have to abandon a few of our old ideas and illusions about ourselves. A particular difficulty can arise with how we understand the way in which Lent is meant to operate in the life of the individual. We understand that what the Church does during Lent is a ‘given’, and that there is an important community dimension to Lent, but our own part can be confusing because it leaves much to our own judgement and decision.

Lent is frequently portrayed as a time of spiritual contest, or, in St Paul’s evocative phrase, as a war with the principalities and powers of this present age. While that is true, for those of us who are limping rather than running along the way of salvation, the idea of battling the devil has a touch of theatricality about it, or, at best, Desert-Father unattainability. We’d love to be spiritual athletes, praying unceasingly, fasting rigorously, brimming over with charity and compassion, but the truth is we have to squeeze our Lenten programme into an already full day and there’s only so much we can do. We’re B-team players, if you like; and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our asceticism has less to do with spectacular renunciations than just getting on with things as best we can — what the old monastic authors used to call mortification of the will or obedience, i.e. doing what we ought to do or have to do as well as we can, rather than what we choose/want to do. Even the idea of Lent as a time of penance can be awkward. We all know that penance, especially penances (pl), can lead us astray, with the best of intentions, of course. We start counting the number of psalms or rosaries we have said or the cups of coffee we haven’t drunk and get cross with ourselves if we fail to meet the target we have set. We confuse dieting with fasting or abandon our actual duty for something that makes us feel ‘spiritual’ but is, in reality, a form of self-indulgence, a little golden calf we have made for our own private worship.

We have to begin again, at the beginning. Jesus went out into the desert to be alone with God. That is what Lent is about for each of us, and we need to take Jesus’ desert experience as a guide for our own. We shall certainly be tempted, and if we do not meet the devil at some point, I fear we may be deluding ourselves. The first temptation to address is our lack of a real sense of sin. There is a reason for the Church’s recommending that we go to confession on Shrove Tuesday: to repent of sin we first need to acknowledge that we have sinned. Many of us find that surpisingly difficult. Either we suffer from scruples, seeing sin where there is none, or we airbrush away our real guilt and try to pin it on another as Adam did.  We can even think our sins endearingly insignificant! If we could but see sin for what it truly is, we would not think like that. No, we all need to begin Lent by confessing our sins and making a firm purpose of amendment. That clears the decks, so to say, for the hard work that follows.

The first and most important thing any of us can do is to read and pray. There is no substitute for scripture, but rather than setting oneself an impossible schedule, why not aim at something do-able? For example, reading every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass will take us through much salvation history and keep us one with the rest of the Church in our pondering and praying. Try to take away a word or sentence you can return to throughout the day, so that your reading becomes part of you. As to prayer, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. As a Benedictine, I’m not a fan of multiplying prayers and devotions, but committing to spending a certain amount of time each day with the Lord can be a very helpful discipline (and remember, the word ‘discipline’ means teaching, we are meant to learn something from what we do during Lent). Opportunities to turn back to the Lord as the day progresses are numerous. Going from one room to another, a (silent?) grace before and after eating, even a prayer for the irritation of the moment can be a way of recollecting the presence of God in our lives. What matters is regularity rather than quantity: better ten minutes every day with occasional reminders than a whole hour now and then with oblivion in between.

It is with the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving that I think we usually have most difficulty. I am assuming all of us will be eating very plainly during Lent, observing the customary fasts and days of abstinence, and giving any money we save to the poor. But to fast from the wicked word, as Isaiah says, is a much greater thing than to deny oneself some small luxury. I have suggested elsewhere that refusing to be complicit in the denigration, detraction, rudeness and negativity that mark so much of our public discourse, online and off, would be a very good way of standing firm in Christ. It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. After all, who likes to admit they may not be right about everything or accept correction from another? The wicked word is so easy and so seductive. It will always win us friends, although perhaps not the kind of friends we should really care to have. We could go further and try to find something or someone to applaud or celebrate whenever people are making false accusations or tearing others down. Our words matter. They hold the key to life and death but we use so many and so often that we rarely take that to heart. Perhaps this Lent we could try. ‘A good word is above the best gift,’ said St Benedict, quoting Sirach 18.17, when speaking of the cellarer or administrator of the monastery and meaning that we must be careful to speak not merely truthfully but also charitably, even generously.

With almsgiving, I think we come to the heart of what Pope Francis has been trying to teach the Church about translating faith into practice. To give alms is to be compassionate, to move ourselves from centre stage to stand with another, to become powerless in a world that values and exalts power. Again, Isaiah provides the image I need. To unfurl the clenched fist is a very good way, indeed the only way, of giving alms. A closed fist cannot give or receive; it is a sign of aggression, of wanting things for oneself alone. We all have to work out what we clench our fists over and resolve to change. It means becoming vulnerable, sharing, not even having the power of giving. Sometimes, it is material things we need to share; at others it is time, ourselves, in fact. One of the saddest things I have ever heard was a child saying, ‘I am invisible to my parents. I have everything I need and more, but what I’d really like is to sit down with them and talk.’ How many people feel like that child, invisible, worthless even? Unfurling the fist is open to misinterpretation, of course. It is much safer to take up our familiar defensive positions, yet that is precisely what Lent is meant to make us do, open us up to a new way of being, of becoming true disciples of Christ.

So, prayer, fasting and almsgiving as Lenten disciplines, but not necessarily as we have always thought or practised them. I am sure you will have your own thoughts and suggestions to make, so please share them with others in the comments section. Before Ash Wednesday I shall give details of the book of scripture the community and its oblates will be reading during Lent. This year I’m unable to give out individual recommendation as in the past, but, as always, you will be accompanied throughout Lent with the prayers of the community. Please pray for us, too.

Through Lent with St Benedict

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/

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Spiritual Warfare for Christians

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?

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Shrove Tuesday 2015: Praying for IS

Earlier today this tweet caught my eye: how can we pray for IS (or ISIS)? The tweeter is an Anglican bishop whom I admire, and the question he poses plunges us straight into what Lent is all about: conversion of heart, transformation in Christ. Like many others, I am increasingly hesitant about discussing IS (or ISIS) and its latest atrocities because publicity is what it craves. But the death of those twenty-one Coptic Christians whose only crime was to call on the name of Jesus makes the bishop’s question urgent. How do we pray for those whose every act seems to be evil?

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that we pray for IS as something ‘other’. We cannot identify with their mindset, still less their actions. But, if you think about it, very few of us are so in tune with others that we can identify with them completely. The fact that even our nearest and dearest sometimes seem to be worlds apart from us should give us pause. Even Jesus was to discover that his closest disciples were unable to keep watch with him in Gethsemane as he underwent his agony. I think the secret of praying for IS is to pray for them as we pray for ourselves, asking God’s mercy and enlightenment. The gift of conversion of heart sounds splendid — until we actually receive it in some small measure. In asking God to turn the hearts of IS to better things, we are asking for a hard and difficult grace that, if received, will shake them to the very core. God burns evil from our hearts and, say what you like about healing pain, it is always a searing experience.

Shrove Tuesday is a day when Christians take stock of their lives in preparation for Lent. In an earlier post I described it thus:

Shrove Tuesday: a day for being shriven (sacramental confession of our sins), for carnival (eating meat) and pancakes (clearing out the last of the butter, eggs and milk in the larder) before the Lenten fast begins — and for making merry, in the old-fashioned sense of rejoicing and having fun. It may be my warped sense of humour, but there has always seemed to me a marvellous inversion of the usual order of things on Shrove Tuesday. The Church traditionally kept the Vigils of great feasts with a fast; the Vigil of the great fast of Lent is kept with feasting. In both cases the purpose is the same: to impress upon us the solemnity of the occasion, its spiritual importance marked out by what we eat and drink and do.

Today we eat in honour of the Lord; tomorrow, and for forty days, we shall fast in honour of the Lord. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: these are the foundation of our Lent, but probably the most obvious to ourselves and others will be the fasting. It is worth thinking what our fast should be.

Perhaps this year our fasting could include an element of denying ourselves the easy solution of thinking of others as different, ‘other’, so that we pray for them as for ourselves. Lent is often seen in negative terms, giving up this and that, making small sacrifices that, by the end of six weeks, seem enormous. We tend to overlook the fact that the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving unlock great spiritual power. They enable us to stand aside, so to say, and allow Christ to be all in all. Ultimately, it is only God who can solve the problem of evil in the world; but, as we are destined to learn again this Lent, he does so in a way none of us could have foreseen.

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Poverty and Riches

Contrary to the opinion of some, Christianity — at least in its Catholic form — regards neither poverty nor riches as a sign of God’s favour or disfavour. Why, then, is the ‘prosperity gospel’ proving so attractive? Yesterday, not for the first time, our email prayerline contained many requests for financial blessings. Some mentioned distressing situations: nowhere to live, not enough to eat, inadequate or non-existent healthcare, the inability to pay college fees, and so on. Others clearly regarded prayer as a means of obtaining everything the petitioner thought would make him/her happy: a big house, fast car, trophy girl/boyfriend, and so on. We may smile over these, agreeing sagely that money can’t buy happiness, but the fact remains that many people still think of wealth as directly related to God’s blessing and, more troubling still, a blessing that is in some way deserved. By contrast, those who lack anything are under God’s curse, and that is equally deserved. How did such a skewed view of things ever arise?

I wonder whether it is a reaction to centuries of various forms of Christian quietism. Upholding the status quo, not challenging the establishment, accepting that

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

is a self-evident truth (whereas it is nothing of the sort) may have played their part. On the whole, Catholicism has tended to exalt the value of being poor over the value of being rich, recognizing that material plenty can clutter our spiritual vision; but no one can argue that the Church has ever herself felt the need to be poor as an institution.

Lent is a good time to think through our attitudes to poverty and riches, especially as almsgiving is an essential feature of our Lenten discipline. Mercy and compassion aren’t the first qualities that spring to mind when we think of riches, but for Christians they ought to be. That is what we are asked to demonstrate with particular generosity throughout these days of Lent. Our almsgiving shouldn’t be token giving; it should be from the heart, and as much as we can give, whether we’re talking money or some other form of giving, e.g. time. But there is still the underlying attitude to consider. Do we give from a position of superiority, or do we share from the same level? In short, are we believers in the ‘prosperity gospel’ without realising it, or are we ready to accept that we are all equally God’s children and as such bound to one another? The answers may prove uncomfortable, but Lent is a time for being made uncomfortable.

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The Importance of Almsgiving

At the risk of repeating myself, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of almsgiving in our Lenten discipline. On Ash Wednesday our focus tends to be on prayer and fasting, which is as it should be. Our awareness of personal sin and the need of individual conversion is uppermost. We mark the beginning of the penitential season with a rigorous fast and an exterior sign of our inner resolve. Today, however, the ashes are washed from our heads and we turn a beaming face to the world (‘let no one know you are fasting . . .’). What should be the one thing everyone notices? Not our small acts of self-denial or the extra time spent in prayer, surely? No, our compassion, our almsgiving, should be what everyone notices about the Christian practice of Lent.

It has been well said that if you want to know God, show love to your neighbour. When I was a young nun I thought the way to know God was to pray ardently and read deeply, but living in community showed me that, important though those are, the only way to know love fully is to show love oneself. The example of the old nuns taught me what my theology text books did not and could not. The small sacrifices we make during Lent only have meaning if they increase love. So, if you are giving up chocolate or wine as a small gesture of love for the Lord, don’t forget to give the money you save to those who cannot afford either. You will be repaid a hundredfold. Don’t forget the most precious gift you can give is your time. So, over and above any material gift, give your time to those who need it. That visit to someone you have been putting off, that letter you have been meaning to write, even the smile with which you greet the office bore, they are all forms of almsgiving which will enrich your life as well as that of others. They will allow God a way in.

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A Few Resources for Lent

As I’m not sure from day to day whether I’ll be able to blog or not, I thought I’d provide readers with a few links to previous posts about Lent and Lenten themes. You can add to them, if you wish, by using the search box in the sidebar.

 

First, I am a great believer in preparing for Lent, thinking about what it means and what would be most helpful for the individual as well as the community:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/02/11/preparing-for-lent/

 

As a Benedictine, I find that re-reading what the Rule has to say is especially helpful, so here are four posts that go through Benedict’s teaching on Lent:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/28/through-lent-with-st-benedict-2/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/29/through-lent-with-st-benedict-3/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/03/01/through-lent-with-st-benedict-4/

 

You will notice that Benedict’s views on books for Lent are different from those we are probably more used to holding:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/24/a-book-for-lent/
In previous years, I have always tried to respond individually to requests for a Lent Book (last year there were well over 100 requests, I think). This year I can’t do that, so anyone wanting to share our community practice may like to choose between
the Gospel of St John (being read by Digitalnun) or
the Book of Genesis (being read by Quietnun).

 

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Most of this blog is about prayer in one way or another, but these posts may be worth re-reading:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/08/01/prayer-the-simple-thoughts-of-a-simple-nun/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/05/the-versicles-of-the-divine-office/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/01/10/prayer-is-not-a-production-line/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/10/27/reverence-in-prayer/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/10/27/reverence-in-prayer-rb-20/

 

On the subject of fasting, these may be useful, especially as some points are repeated:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/21/shrove-tuesday-2012/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/20/food-and-drink/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/01/04/feasts-fasts-and-fasting-diets/

 

For almsgiving, may I suggest

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/03/11/almsgiving/

I suspect that there is more than enough here from one perspective. For more general information about the historical development of the seasons of Lent and Easter, you might try our main website’s article:

http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html

If you have any energy or time left after that, there are always our podcasts!

 

May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.

 

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St Nicholas, Nelson Mandela and Us

The feast of St Nicholas of Myra is a day when we are encouraged to emulate his almsgiving (he allegedly provided dowries for poor girls unable otherwise to marry), pray for seafarers, eat toffee, and if we live in mainland Europe, give gifts to children. It is not advisable to emulate his punching heretics on the nose or any of the more aggressive virtues he seems to have practised. They were not what made him a saint. Indeed, his tendency to lash out at others was something he had to struggle with as un-Christlike, un-saintly; and it is a measure of his true holiness that eventually he managed to overcome such weaknesses.

I think it is much the same with Nelson Mandela. He was a truly great man, but I don’t think he was a secular saint as some are trying to make out.  I daresay there were actions that in his later years he regretted or came to view in a different light. I therefore pray for the repose of his soul as I pray for the souls of all the departed, especially during these days when his body is being prepared for burial and his family and friends are mourning the loss of someone they knew and loved in a way that outsiders never really can.

Where does that leave us on this Friday in Advent, when Isaiah assures us that the coming day of the Lord will mean that

the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons.

I think Isaiah’s words remind us that the Advent call to live with integrity, to pursue justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t an abstraction. St Nicholas tried to live a godly life and, by all accounts, succeeded. Mandela walked out of 27 years of prison saying that unless he left behind the hatred and bitterness he would be imprisoned still. His subsequent actions showed that he understood forgiveness much better than many of us who have not had that experience. Maybe our lives are more ordinary than those of St Nicholas or Nelson Mandela, but we can all of us try to avoid gossip, scoffing at others and those mean-spirited words and deeds that mark us out as unforgiving, unloving people. We can sweeten the lives of others, not by doling out toffee, but by being the kind of people it is good to know. The world is better for having had its saints like Nicholas and its great men like Mandela. Let us pray it may be better for having us, too.

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Lent, Popes and Plain Speaking

Depending on your preferred online reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lent had been forgotten amidst all the riot of discordant opinion about Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.* To say that is a pity is an understatement. We are approaching the holiest time of the Christian year and we need to focus. Inevitably, there is a lot of interest in both Francis and Benedict, but if we are busier scooping up fascinating details about them or speculating about their intentions than living Lent, we may forget what really matters: preparing heart and mind for the solemn feast of Easter.

So, instead of getting into a fret about what may or may not be happening in the Vatican, why not ask yourself some hard questions to which you, and only you, know the answers. How is your prayer, fasting and almsgiving going? Does your Lent still have the purity of intention with which you began? Are you more aware of your own sin and the immense forgiveness of God? The next questions are trickier, and only those around you will be able to judge, if at all, the progress you have made. Have you become more charitable, more patient, in a word, more like our crucified Lord? Or have you been blessed with a grace so glorious and overwhelming that you have forgotten self entirely in your wonder and awe at the infinite goodness of God?

Sometimes a little plain speaking at this point of Lent is all we need to get us back on track. I would not dare to ask these questions had I not already asked them of myself and blushed at the answers I gave.

* I myself find attempts to exalt either pope at the expense of the other profoundly distasteful. I believe the papacy of both men to be important for the Church, but we lack perspective at present. I’d be grateful if readers would not use this blog to air derogatory opinions/engage in an argument which, by its very nature, can have no resolution. Prayer would be much more to the point.

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Something the Chancellor Forgot?

Unlike many in Britain today, I have no strong feelings about the Budget. That doesn’t mean I am indifferent — far from it — but when I look at the situation in Greece or Portugal, or even nearer home in Ireland, I think we are comparatively lucky. However, taking both the Budget and recent decisions to change the nature of the NHS and other familiar elements of our welfare system into account, I can’t help noting that there is one glaring anomaly.

There was nothing I could see in yesterday’s budget to help or encourage the voluntary sector. No matter how successful business in Britain may be, no matter how much surplus wealth may (eventually) be created, the voluntary sector (charity to you and me), can never plug all the gaps in our state welfare system. Indeed, major donors will not be getting the tax relief they have in the past for substantial donations to charity unless they have super-sized incomes (if you give £2M to charity, you now need to be earning £8M, or have I done my sums wrong?). There may be a vague hope that the strong impulse towards charitable giving among Jews and Christians, for example, will help make up for that lack, but with the constant nibbling away at organized religion and the demonstrable falling away in giving across all sectors of society, one may question that.

As one who is very conscious of the needs of some of the most forgotten people in society, the elderly blind and visually impaired among them, I suppose I am entitled to a gloomy view. It won’t stop us doing all we can, but there comes a point where we can do no more. Many charities this morning are probably wondering which services they will need to cut during the coming year. Maybe our Lenten alsmgiving needs to be a whole-year programme? What do you think?

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