Christopher Smith tries to organize his Lenten discipline—and keep to it


Here we are, at the last chance saloon before the start of Lent. Have you got your Lenten disciplines sorted out? Do you know what you’re giving up? In my parish, there is a persistent anecdote which does the rounds every year of an unnamed St Alban’s regular who was so moved by a Lenten sermon that he decided to give up not only the lemon in his gin and tonic, but also the tonic. Now of course that’s a good line, and many of us have probably cracked a similar joke at some point; I might claim to be giving up spirits, even though I hardly ever drink spirits. Similarly, you might claim to be giving up chocolate, even though you hardly ever eat it. But, I’m afraid, none of those really pass muster as a Lenten penance—and we know it!

I continue to be amused by the idea of ‘Dry January.’ This is a kind of secular attempt at doing Lent, but doing it after having over-indulged during Advent, which has taken the place of (actual) Christmas in the secular world as the time to celebrate (err…) something. People organize parties and meet friends and drink too much, and now feel they need to ‘dry out’ for a month in the new year. It makes me think rather of T.E. Hulme’s idea of ‘spilt religion.’ Hulme died on the Western Front in 1917 having just turned 34, a critic and something of a philosopher, an atheist with more than a little sympathy for the faith he had left behind. This, published posthumously in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, could almost be by C.S. Lewis: ‘The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism… Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.’ Is that what ‘Dry January’ is? Spilt religion? I have yet to come across anyone who has kept it up for the whole month but, then again, how do our Lenten disciplines usually work out?

`A few years ago, the Church of England ran a Lent campaign which generated headlines like, ‘Lent should be more light-hearted, says CofE.’ Well, I think I might unfashionably suggest that, to do Lent properly, we ought to be making it more difficult, because in some small way (but in a way which we ought to feel) we are trying to join our suffering, our mortification, to that of the Lord himself, whose suffering on the cross leads to our redemption. And, of course, the Lord’s suffering starts right at the beginning of his ministry, in the desert. He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness (‘driven’ by the Spirit, says St Mark), and, in what always seems to me a masterful understatement by both Matthew and Luke, after fasting for forty days and nights, he was hungry. But what hunger that must have been! And worse besides.

I was quite moved some years ago by a novel by Jim Crace called Quarantine. Now, I suspect I might not care terribly much for Jim Crace if I met him, but his writing is tight and evocative, and I don’t see why an atheist shouldn’t make a contribution to the way I view an aspect of the faith. In the book, a character named Jesus withdraws to the desert for a period of quarantine, literally a period of forty days. There are a handful of other characters around, one of whom seems on the face of it the embodiment of evil. And the portrayal of the young Jesus, little more than a boy anxious to prove himself before the God whom he seeks to encounter in the wilderness, is moving, if not theologically orthodox.

    Crace’s premise, set out at the beginning of the book, is that a man could not survive for longer than thirty days in the desert without food or water, and that he could not remain conscious for longer than twenty-five. And he describes vividly the trial through which the young man puts himself in the scorching heat of the wilderness, with no food, with no water, as his skin begins to dry out and bruise, and his whole system begins to shut down as his body begins to decay from within. ‘How cruelly his body would begin to eat itself as his muscles and his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid desert boys battling for a piece of wood.’ And, at the point where he can barely retain consciousness, into his consciousness comes the tempter, the evil one.

So often in scripture it is the devil who recognizes Jesus for who he really is. Yet this Son of God is weak to the point of death, not spared the weakness of the body any more than he is spared the temptations of the evil one. How near it all is to the time when the same vulnerable man will hang on the cross, weak to the point of death, and be tempted by the passers-by, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders: ‘Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.’

And perhaps, in all this, being mildly put out during Lent does not seem so difficult. If we can, in some small way, join our penance to the sufferings of the Lord, we will grow in holiness. Dry January may be spilt religion, but now we are called to the real thing, our little wilderness.