Julian Browning offers some advice on keeping Lent
Of course the Lent book is good for us. Learning, pondering, discussing: all good things. So are the other traditional obligations of Lent, such as almsgiving in the form of a Lenten charity, and works of ‘supererogation’ as we used to call actions beyond what God requires: all good in themselves. I’m just not sure they take us very far into Lent. We need fewer books in Lent, not more. Let us beware the old heresy that the more we know and understand, the better Christians we shall be.
Lent is the season for making a choice, but not about a book. Lent is the promise of spring. Lent is the God-given time for each of us to prepare to receive the grace of resurrection, the healing of the human condition, the forgiveness of our sins. ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.’ [Mark 1.14] Repentance means changing direction in our lives. It takes time to work out what we need to do and where we want to go. How do we eradicate the cunning half-truths which support our present way of life? How do we learn that God is to be trusted? How do we resist the temptation of self-importance? There is a troubling lack of satisfaction in most lives. We know we have to upgrade somehow but are not sure how to do it, so we read a book. But we also know that the call to personal integration has something to do with giving up what we have and entering a wilderness as Jesus did. The popular tradition of giving up something for Lent is a faint lifeless trace of this radical demand. Our obsession with changing the menu in Lent is a dimmed memory of the strict, but shorter fast for candidates for baptism at Easter. Do we really believe that giving up the second dry martini discharges a Lenten obligation? Are your Lenten efforts in fact borderline neurotic, a self-imposed system of distraction and reward, a teasing temporary withdrawal of the little treats which light up your pampered lives?
Is this a Fast, to keep
The larder lean?
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish?
[from To Keep a True Lent, Robert Herrick (1591–1674)]
And why does it have to be a health kick that knocks us to our knees? Our aim in Lent is the joyful acceptance of a new yet ancient way of life, St. Benedict’s middle way, discovering again the values of moderation and humility, because that is the path to the Kingdom, to life in the Spirit. The lifestyle changes which God asks of each of us are supposed to be permanent, not just the temporary ban from the booze aisle. We’ll take Lent seriously when we accept that there’s no going back.
‘Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.’ [Mark 1.12] The wilderness, or desert, is a landscape we must find and enter, when we know deep down in our souls that we are called to follow him through his ministry to where the shadow of the cross arose upon a lonely hill. It starts here, on the edge of the desert. How is your interior life? Not sure? Just as well, because the interior life is a fabrication. An interior life posits an exterior life, in which we do what we want, and a separate interior life, a little room with a flickering light bulb, where we keep our poor store of prayers and good intentions and where we babble and chatter about Church and get lost in our ideas. There is only one life, one reality. This is my body, this is my blood, that’s it. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. God works with that. God is the ground of our being. Only theologians attempt to distinguish between faith, love and action. This one and only life is the spiritual life, life in the Spirit, the life of God, given to us and now lived in company with others, the desert life to which Jesus calls us in Lent, a divine life which the risen Christ will interpret for us. This Spirit knocks our plans sideways. The Spirit is not ours to control. Life in the Spirit is shared among all people, living and departed. Its source is the heart of God, infinitely deep, love poured out for us. That leaves us with no alternative but to abandon our own personal ambitions for holiness. An individual interior life is an illusion. When faith is no more than our own finite energy, prepare for a breakdown. That is why we disappoint ourselves so often. We think we are going to change ourselves as life passes and so become holy people, but I don’t think that happens to many of us. We’re stuck with who we are. To be allowed to let go of our ambitions in religion comes as a huge relief. That is one of Christ’s gifts to each one of us. Spiritual pride and ambition are what we give up in Lent.
So let’s go into the desert, shedding burdens as we go. We shall not get lost. Apparently the nights in the desert are not frightening at all, because the stars are so bright and clear that we cannot lose our way. We’re in good company. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries who went into the Egyptian deserts to find God. They gave up things too. John Cassian, the fourth century monk, whittled this down to three renunciations. First, we renounce our former way of life, in order to move closer to the life with God which we desire (difficult). Second, we do the hard work of clearing our minds of fantasy and self-aggrandizing thoughts (very difficult, because we have no control over our thoughts). Third, we renounce our images of God so that we can contemplate God as God (let’s wait until we get there). The tradition sounds tough to us, but we are in the right place. Christ has sanctified the desert. It is where people speak with clear voices. It is where life has to be simplified. It is where, as Jesus advised, we wash our faces and smile when we fast. A major theme in the writings of the desert monks is authenticity. ‘Woe is the man who bears a name not justified by his actions.’ [Silvanus] Lent is our rigorous school for authenticity. This is to be a demolition job, the undermining of stubborn habits, and forty days isn’t long enough, but we can make a start, deploring our habitual superficiality. God gives us the space, the necessary patience, the silence and the solitude we need. You and I can create what has been called ‘the desert in the city’, a prayerful place at home where God’s clear voice can be heard. In the real desert, if there is no water, the Arabs wash themselves with sand. Lent is our baptism of sand, our new life at one with a desert landscape, an unthreatening emptiness which we no longer have to fill with our ego. There we find new life in Christ, and maybe a new way of reading the gospels, as if we had just found St John’s account of the Passion, pages uncut, in a heap of books on a market stall. The gospels are not to be learnt, but breathed. They are not a possession or what these days we might call a ‘resource’. Christ’s message of self-denial is almost unbearable, but it can be lived and breathed in a desert landscape, where we can be free, with no possessions or acquired positions, simply honesty regained, living one life not several, and living it here and now.
Did you see the film, 1917? It follows a First World War soldier who is given a duty he thinks is impossible, to take a message to a general some way down the line. The message will prevent a huge loss of life by cancelling an attack. During the subsequent adventures through the desert of an empty no-man’s-land and behind the German lines, this lance-corporal loses everything: his friend, his way, his rifle, his water bottle, his uniform, his bayonet, all is taken from him; he is wounded, half buried alive, and his identity is all but submerged in the foaming river which carries him to his destination. All he has left is the message, which he is able to deliver safely. Whatever we face in Lent, however feeble our efforts, whatever the setbacks, there remains the grace of our baptism in which we are given the right direction for our lives, so that at Easter we fulfil our vocation by delivering the only message that matters, that Christ is Risen. As the late Daniel O’Leary wrote in one of his essays: ‘Outwardly we weep and bleed as we stumble up the grim Calvary of our lives; inwardly our dust is already shining with Easter gold.’ [O’Leary, Unmasking God, 2011, p.23]
This Lenten journey in the desert might require a clean sweep of our comfortable pieties and even of a few of our favourite things in religion with which we help the time to pass. The desert is our Exodus. If we hang on to everything that keeps us safe, the desert cannot get to work on us, and we shall not find the way of not knowing, that emptiness which Christ alone can fill. Many have gone to the desert to find God. One such was the Italian catechist, Alessandro Pronzato (1932–2018), who wrote a rare little book translated as Meditations on the Sand (1983). In this book, he cannot help quoting a troubling prayer written by Lanzo del Vasto, an Italian Catholic philosopher:
Virgin of thinkers, tormented by light,
Take pity on their burnt out eyes,
Chasing mirages over rocky paths and arid pages,
Take pity on them.
Confuse their paths and muddle their minds.
And lead them to the oasis of living ignorance.
Make them weep, Lady, make them weep.
‘May this Lent be blessed with emptiness and peace and faith.’ [Thomas Merton, Journal, 11 February 1964]
Fr Julian Browning is a member of
the Editorial Board of New Directions.