Constant Failures

How is Lent going? Are you still full of enthusiasm, or are you ruefully beginning to count how many good intentions have fallen by the wayside? Has there been a little fudging on the fasting front, perhaps, or sudden blindness/deafness when confronted by someone in need? And all that extra prayer you promised yourself, where did that go?

Note I said, ‘promised yourself’. The trouble with Lenten resolutions is that very often they are about us. It is an old joke in the monastery that the Lent Bill written by God bears no relation to the one we ourselves write. We were going to do great things for God but, strangely, we find we can’t do the little ones he actually asks. Being patient with X or curbing the withering reply, no, that’s too much to ask. We are tired and hungry and our temper is uncertain. Let’s get on with the Bigger Programme we set ourselves and leave these trifling details to others. Well, NO.

I freely admit that my Lent has, so far, been a constant failure. Everything I set myself to do and be has collapsed around my ankles. I’m not proud of that, I’m certainly not happy about that; but I think it may be the lesson I need to learn — yet again. I am constantly failing, but the emphasis should be on the constant not the failure. What God asks of us is that we try, and go on trying no matter how often we fail. Today’s gospel, Matthew 7. 7–12, is one I find very challenging. To treat others as one would be treated oneself, yes, I can see how that would be not merely a Lenten programme in itself but, as Jesus says, ‘the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’. Pray for me as I do for you, that together we may arrive at the great feast of Easter, still failures in the ordinary sense of the word, no doubt, but definitely constant, standing firm on the rock that is Christ.

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Pain is Our Friend

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain, with good reason. Suffering is not necessarily redemptive, nor is experiencing discomfort or loss in itself admirable. Acceptance of pain is another matter, and as Holy Week approaches it may be useful to consider where we are on our Lenten journey. Pain is our friend, because it reveals to us truths we might otherwise reject or never even come to know. It opens us up to that which is above and beyond our power to control; and Lent is very much about ceding control over our lives to God in ways that we don’t dare at other times of year.

If our prayer isn’t making us feel the pain of God’s absence — and even more, the agony of his presence — are we still too focused on ourselves, on what we do/say in prayer, rather than stretching out to embrace the mystery of God’s silence? If our fasting isn’t making us feel hunger, are we playing at sacrifice — giving up little things in order to avoid the greater surrender of self which can seem so daunting? If our almsgiving doesn’t hurt, is it because we are limiting our giving to what we think we can comfortably manage, rather than letting God determine what the measure of our giving should be?

The trouble about asking these questions is that it can induce guilt or scrupulosity, but that is not my intention. I think Holy Week is so intense, so full of Christ’s pain, that it can be overwhelming. We can be numbed at second-hand, as it were, and perhaps miss the point. It is not Christ’s death that redeems us; it is his obedient acceptance of that death. In these few days before Palm Sunday, it would be good to reflect on the difference. I still say that pain is our friend, but only because Christ has made it so by first embracing it himself as a necessary part of his loving obedience to the Father.

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Love, Liberty and Licence

Two events caught my eye this morning: the release of Glen Ford after half a lifetime on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a kind of Magna Carta of the internet. A man unjustly deprived of liberty and a man arguing for less government surveillance may not, at first sight, seem to have much in common, but I think they do; and rather surprisingly perhaps, I think they have something to tell us about Lent as well.

Mr Ford’s conviction was legally unsound but appears (I use the word advisedly) to reflect a deep-seated fear of African American violence. We could say he was condemned to death to ‘protect’ other, overwhelmingly white, citizens. Sir Tim’s  plea recalls the high ideals with which the internet began as a highway for free information exchange, and the grubbiness that has invaded it since. Governments the world over seek to listen in to ‘protect’ their citizens — and their own vested interests. So much for liberty, we say; we have over-reacted because we are afraid, and when we are afraid, we clamp down. It is all rather negative.

There is a problem, however, when liberty becomes licence and loses all moral restraint. Violence left unchecked makes everywhere unsafe for all citizens; an internet without any limitations becomes equally dangerous, allowing terrorism and abuse of others free rein. That is why we have laws and  means of enforcing them. I don’t suppose Mr Ford would argue that law should be abolished just because in his case it was abused, any more than Sir Tim would argue that there should be a complete free-for-all on the internet. Common sense demands that we place some restrictions on our own freedom in order to guarantee the freedom of all.

Lent is rather like that. We limit ourselves in some ways in order to experience a greater freedom, a freedom of spirit we may not always enjoy. We fast, limiting our use of food and drink, to know our reliance upon God, to hunger for him both literally and figuratively. We give time to prayer in order to experience the love of God; and we give alms in order to share that love with others. Love, not fear, is our motive; and the checks we place on our freedom are not negative but liberating. Lent is a most joyful season when we revel in the freedom that is ours as children of God. More than that, we look forward to the freedom that will one day be ours for ever in the Kingdom of God.

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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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One Week In

One week into Lent, and we probably all have a much more modest idea of what we can do. The prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving — they all seem a little harder, the results a little less obvious than we had hoped. This is the moment at which we need encouragement, and the encouragement we most need is to be reminded that Lent is not about what we do but what God does; and he can do anything! He can take our small and uncertain offerings and transform them. All he needs is a chink in our armour, a way in, to draw us closer to himself and refashion us nearer to his heart’s desire.

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