Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Lockdown and Lent

A number of people have got quite stroppy with me recently, saying that they are not giving anything up for Lent, they have suffered enough during lockdown, thank you very much, their aim will be just to get through each day. I cannot quibble with part of that. Some people have suffered hugely; but I would query the idea that Lent requires some form of self-imposed suffering. That would make God a monster, delighting in the pain of his children; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying God is not like that. Lent is about becoming closer to the Lord, becoming more free, more joyful. Christian tradition has always valued prayer, fasting and almsgiving as means to that end, but they are not ends in themselves, nor should they be interpreted narrowly. An illustration may make this clearer.

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 58.9–14, with its references to clenched fists, wicked words and sharing with others, is an excellent way of examining our conscience. What is more useless than a clenched fist, which can neither give nor receive? What is more pointless than a wicked word, which injures both speaker and hearer? Even if we have nothing material to share with others, we can rein in the others and share as much by not doing as by doing. There are days when my illness makes me think I’m incapable of anything more than just existing, can’t be ‘nice’ to others or contribute in any meaningful sense to the common good. That’s when the real work of conversion begins, when we realise that what we value may be reinforcing an idea we have of ourselves that is actually hindering us on our way to God, making it all about us again, not him.

A Different Approach

So, don’t worry about giving up wine or chocolate or saying an extra decade of the rosary or whatever you decided to do for Lent. Take control of your thoughts first. Cultivate kindness and generosity of mind: it will lead to action. Watch your speech: restrain that angry word, pause before you tap out your opinion on social media, make friends with those who think differently from you. Be honest with yourself and trust God for the rest. To be fair, I haven’t seen this working in myself yet, but I have seen it in others, so there is hope for us all.

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Rebuilding the Ruins

I am fascinated by the different ways people view Lent. I can understand those who think of it in terms of giving up, of small penances intended to make an offering to the Lord, and I feel confident that the Lord accepts them for what they are — pledges of love and devotion. In the monastery we are much more inclined to take things on, to add to our daily commitment to prayer and service. The fast is stricter, the silence is (or should be) more profound, and our almsgiving more generous. It’s positive Lent versus negative Lent, if you like, though the end in view is the same: to come closer to the Lord. Then we read Isaiah 58. 9-14 and are made to think about Lent in a slightly different way.

Doing away with the clenched fist and wicked word is a challenge to most of us. We know that a clenched fist is unable to give or receive, it is simply a sign of belligerence, cold and closed, but it has its attractions. We can claim it as a sign of solidarity with the oppressed and ignore its limitations. Just what we need during Lent! The wicked word trips off the tongue easily enough but can do lasting damage — just as much as a clenched fist, in fact. It is particularly effective when used to express anger. Vicarious anger, when we whip up our fury at what we perceive to be another’s wrongdoing and label it justifiable or righteous is particularly seductive during Lent. It allows us to be angry and say what we like, with a warm glow of conscious rectitude.

For many of us, especially those with a little more self-knowledge or more candid family or friends, Lent will be a struggle with our inner demons, trying to control our emotions of anger and the temptation to lash out at others. Discouragement will soon set in, of course, as the failures mount up. Even worse would be to feel we were succeeding. The pride that does not know or admit its own weakness or sinfulness is very much like a clenched fist or a mouth spewing empty boasts. Horrible!

Isaiah does not limit what he says to control of hand and tongue, however. He goes on to speak of rebuilding the ruins. Have you ever thought of Lent as an opportunity to rebuild the ruins of your spiritual life, to lay new and better foundations for the life of grace? Put like that, I think St Benedict’s portrayal of Lent as a time of joy and hope may become much more immediate, much more personal to those who do not live in monasteries. But note this: when Isaiah speaks of rebuilding the ruins, he links it very closely to almsgiving, to sharing with others freely and gladly, and reverence for the Lord.

Almsgiving often seems to me to be forgotten when people talk about Lent, or restricted to CAFOD’s Family Fast Day and donations to some good cause or other, yet it means so much more than that. It comes from the Greek word for compassion, to feel with, suffer with, another; to show mercy. I think there may be something there worth pondering as we consider how to rebuild whatever is ruined in our own life or the lives of others; and the reverence with which we set about the task will surely draw us closer to the Lord we seek. I hope so.

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