Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Quentin Crisp, who, in spite of his flamboyance, ate almost nothing. He claimed to live on a kind of white powder bought from the chemist’s shop to which he would add plain water. Apparently, this plaster-like substance was “quite nutritious”. Asceticism is also practised through eccentricity or being too lazy to cook one’s meals. Becoming vegan or vegetarian, even temporarily, can be a part of one’s choices of life, but they don’t necessarily bring us to holiness.
The question comes up each year without fail. I have provocatively asked whether one might give up religion for Lent, with the idea that one might become kinder with other people, more critical of ideology and more human. If that is a challenge to someone, perhaps such would be a good idea.
Someone might say flippantly that he has given up hope for Lent – and never found it since last year! What is Lent if it is not a time for self-torture by semi-starvation or looking miserable to others and to oneself? Lent usually starts when we are still in the midst of foul weather and the sight of a wintered boat on hard standing. We just feel like curling up and staying in bed rather than going to work or Matins or whatever we do each day! It’s typically a time when we are at our lowest, unless we live in the southern hemisphere. It’s depressing, dark and cold! All we need then is a letter from the bank manager informing us that the overdraft limit has been exceeded, or a big bill for Social Security contributions! The cup fills to overflowing…
Strangely, I find Lent a peaceful time. Little happens, and I am left to get on with daily routines with few interruptions. When the blogosphere yields little in the way of news or stimulation for our curiosity, the time has come to read books. As Lent wears on, we get an extra few minutes of light each morning. Nature gives its little rewards from snowdrops to crocuses and the first daffodil buds, and we only pray that we won’t get a short sharp shock of ice and snow! But, overall, more is taken away from us in Lent than we would give up.
Almsgiving? We are overloaded with the world’s miseries. Our compulsory social security payments are used in part for giving benefits to refugees and migrants from abroad. We can only give so much before being challenged to give voluntary contributions to organisations that are not part of the Welfare State. Do we become hard of heart, cynical, disillusioned and bitter? That doesn’t seem to be the purpose of Lent. I would prefer to be of help to people closer to home: hospital visits, spending time with a relative going through difficulties – much more nutritious spiritually than turning ourselves into dairy cows to be milked for the money we don’t have!
Lent was originally intended for the catechesis of those who were preparing to be baptised during the Holy Saturday night liturgy. Originally, the course was three years, and catechumens were treated with rigour during their scrutinies. Precautions had to be taken against informers pretending to be converts to Christianity! Eventually, the time of Lent would be a lot shorter, and the various stages like the Exorcisms and the Salt of Wisdom determined the choice of Gospel readings at Mass just before the catechumens were sent out of the church. As time went on, the Church thought about how this time could be applied to the faithful who are already baptised. It became a time of asceticism and conversion, a time of deeper commitment to God, in preparation for the Paschal Mystery.
The thing is that a year is short for an adult. Lent, like Easter and every other feast, comes back again and again. We become jaded with the same old message and superficial attempts to adapt it to our modern consumerist mentality. It just seems to me that fresh approaches are essential. One approach is studying the liturgy and its symbolism and spiritual meaning. Ash Wednesday brings us to the same level as contemplating bones in a charnel house! We are reminded that we are not the almighty beings we think we are. We will die one day, and we will be buried, cremated, thrown into the sea, whatever. Within fifty years of that event, we will be totally forgotten as if we had never existed. Only those of us with major achievements would be remembered as famous people. Otherwise, “cemeteries are full of indispensable people”. Only the thought of an afterlife is of any consolation, but that might be much more unpleasant than we imagine as our way towards the Light is made in pain and toil.
It is above all about reality, our own reality as well as what we all have in common. If that is our basic attitude in life, called humility by the saints, then we will never be disappointed when we are not up to our illusions of grandeur. Over these past few weeks, I have been searching my entire life for the real me. On one side, I bewail the way I have failed myself and others, and am only a mere shadow of former ambitions. On the other hand, I find the answers to old questions, a sense of resolution. This is a part of our Lenten labour of self-discovery and nakedness before God. Few people ever get anywhere near it. I am also so far away!
I think that many of us will be reading more than usual. Some will go for the Church Fathers, the great pioneers of the monastic life or more recent saints. I need to go further into the themes of Gnostic mythology and their modern understanding in psychology and anthropology. The theme of Sophia is immense and goes way beyond the human mother of Jesus. There are elements that have to be apprehended in order to make real sense of Christianity that is often reduced to a children’s story! This all relates to ourselves if something is to come out of it. I get the idea that the mystery of evil would no longer ravage our faith.
Last night, I began to watch All Quiet on the Western Front, the heartbreaking story of World War I from the point of view of a young German soldier. All I was able to bear was the scene of the battlefield, the futility of so much bloody loss of life for so little in the way of devastated territory. I switched off the film totally drained emotionally and then burst into tears. This was a film, and we see death and violence all the time. Why should this be different? It was the futility of it all, the inhumanity of the officers who sent their men “over the top”, the inhumanity of those who gave orders to the officers in the trenches. The only thing I can compare with the trenches of a hundred years ago are the films of the concentration camps in 1945, the sheer horror of the depths to which humans can descend. Why can’t God send a really big meteorite or a comet and have done with us? And it is still happening with Daesh, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all the others – and those who continue to support and finance those monsters! This is all a part of the ashing of tomorrow. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Is anything worth saving?
In fact there is, and this is our resurrection like that of Christ. We are made for love and knowledge of ourselves and God. From that comes beauty and all that is sublime, the best of humanity. I am overwhelmed with the current state of the world. Where is hope? Where is beauty? Where is humanity and love? It must still exist if we believe that some of these things reside in ourselves. We have to know ourselves and be ourselves.
That for me is the task of Lent, which goes far beyond all the “traditional penances”!