I have decided this year, that Lent should focus on what it’s not about. In case anyone is wondering whether that means forget about giving things up, you’re right – in a way. I’m going to focus on not giving up in order to arrive, by grace, at a place where I can begin to give things up, specifically those attitudes of mind and ingrained habits of control that normally govern the business of giving things up for Lent, leaving no space whatsoever for seeking a deeper relationship with God.
Since these attitudes are largely governed by anxiety, as they no doubt are for many people, I shall try to live from within a single short text: ‘Do not be anxious. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Matt 6:33) I do not think that the things that are being promised have much to do with mastering the art of self-control, although that might eventually reveal itself to be directly related to them, as a benefit or by-product.
Rather, they have everything to do with letting go of obsessive control in order to allow God to simply love us as his own, in his own way and on his own terms. Anxiety about giving things up and trying to be a better person gets in the way of this allowing, especially when the two appear to be interdependent. In other words, when you believe that you are only good when you give up the things you said you would, and when you can only manage this giving up if you are an inherently strong, spiritual, self-aware person – or any or all of the above. When this happens Lent turns into a cycle of self-recrimination leading to self-hatred and a sense of hopelessness.
Lent can be very conducive to self-hatred, and even to self-abuse. There is a vaguely punitive sub-agenda that can take over when it comes to giving things up or taking things on. It is as if God will be appeased in some way by our narrowly obsessive attitudes to foregoing chocolate, wine or cake, or that he will be gratified by our guilt-driven acts of false kindness to people we don’t like or relatives we’ve neglected.
It’s also as if getting through the 40 days of Lent by giving something up, or striving to do something that requires some careful self-examination before embarking on it, is going to somehow make the world a happier place. That will only happen when these things are undertaken in love, and love is not something that can be summoned from nowhere, through rigorous acts of wrong headed self-denial. It’s also as well to know from the start that we will fail at most of them and thereby end up hating ourselves while experiencing a mixture of shame and anger in regard to a God who is the cause of all this giving up in the first place.
All of these negative and conflicted feelings will be felt closer to home by those we live and work with. Failure brings shame and self-recrimination often expressed in ill temper and resentment, which is in turn fuelled by anxiety and loss of sleep. It seems to me that all this shame and anger-inducing activity is not what Lent is for.
I like to think of Lent as I contemplate the state of my vegetable garden at this time of year. There are a few weeds that need digging up. Most of them have been left by the birds. Given the heavy rain that we’ve had, a great deal of pre-seasonal care and attention is going to be needed if the garden is going to be able to produce anything at all this summer. The soil is sodden and, as a result, utterly starved of nutrients. If I can find enough black plastic I shall cover it over for the next few weeks (keeping the plastic to use again next year) until these vicious storms have passed and it has had a chance to dry out a bit. This will also protect it from rabbits and birds, as well as providing refuge for the frogs and toads who may have become disorientated in the surrounding wet, and wandered from the pond.
I would like to think that Lent will correspond in some measure to what is going on in the veg garden. Might it be a time for allowing myself to be weeded of old attitudes of mind which have, in any case, become rather worn and sodden with the passing of time and with the vicissitudes of this rather difficult year? As St. Paul says, we are God’s garden, so it is not us who do the weeding. (1 Cor. 3:9) From this, I think it is safe to deduce that the order for Lent ought to be one of allowing ourselves to be tended to and thus, the hardest thing of all for many of us, to live constantly in a place of vulnerability to God’s love.
By this I mean that we should consciously ‘will’ ourselves into a place of openness to that love. Many of us find this hard, which is why I say it should be done consciously and wilfully. It is hard because it brings us to a place of having to own that as far as God is concerned, we are worthy of love, not because we have done anything, or given anything up, but simply because we are seen in exactly the same light as God sees His Christ. He sees Christ in us. And we bear Christ in us to the extent that we allow him entry to the deepest and most secret place of our own personhood. Only in allowing him entry can we begin to be transformed in our attitudes to ourselves and to others.
At first, this will be a conscious and deliberate exercise in getting out of the way, in not obstructing God’s love out of a general sense of unworthiness, shame or even anger. Another name for this non-obstruction might be self-denial. Later this act of self-denial will become so much a part of us that it will be no more noticeable than our breathing. It will transform us. This transformation process will be painful only as and when it needs to be, but the pain will be lessened in inverse proportion to the extent that we allow ourselves to know that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and always will be, whatever we decide to give up.
You could say, then, that this gives us permission to be and do whatever we like with ourselves, our lives and the lives of other people, not to mention the planet we inhabit. But the snag here is that if you are consciously allowing, or taking in, the love of another, it would be ridiculous to pretend that in that same moment you would wilfully exploit or destroy those other people and living things that are precious to that person. In the moment of allowing ourselves to be loved by God, at the deepest level of our inner being, we literally ‘give up’ the things that make for violence and hatred in all its manifestations. This, I believe is the meaning and purpose of Lent.