Chaplain's thought for the week
What is the point of Lent?
For lots of us, Lent is a time of giving something up (chocolate, sweets, crisps, caffeine, alcohol etc.). It’s a time then of self-denial (often with the not so hidden motivation that we might lose a bit of weight). To make us feel worse, at a time of cutting back, our liturgies in church at this time focus on sin and repentance. Being desperate for a bit of chocolate or a glass of wine which we’ve given up, we might either feel bad that we fail or a sense of pride in our success – and often a mixture of both.
Lent then is usually about the ego. It builds up the ego when we realise that we’re able to give something up, or knocks it down a bit as we confront the fact that we really are at the mercy of our appetites. The justification for this observance of Lent is found, of course, in the story we read in the Bible on the first Sunday of Lent in church: the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and he eats nothing.
I’ve often thought, however, that we’ve got Lent the wrong way round. In this version of Lent, the tail wags the dog. Why did Jesus go into the wilderness? It wasn’t about boosting his ego: proving that he could go for forty days without food. It certainly wasn’t to show that, unlike Oscar Wilde, he could resist anything except temptation. Rather, the Bible says that ‘the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness’. Jesus was on retreat. He went into the wilderness quite simply to pray – and to do that he felt he needed to take up an even simpler life in solitude for a while, without the usual creature comforts.
So what is Lent all about then? Lent is about creating more space in our lives for prayer and contemplation. That’s why the example of Jesus in the wilderness is helpful. It’s not about either a triumph or a devastation for the ego; rather, prayer is actually about transcending the ego, or ‘leaving self behind’ as Jesus puts it in another part of the Gospels. So if giving something up helps you to create more of a spacious Lent for prayer and contemplation, go ahead: give something up. But if giving something up is just another chance either to harangue or inflate the ego, then don’t bother.
What we find, of course, is that when we make a journey of prayer we are confronted by the voices of our shadow side, just as Jesus was in the wilderness. When we endeavour to enter silence and solitude we inevitably hear the dark voices of challenge and temptation: the voices inside which tell us that materialism, power or affirmation are the true sources of happiness. Hearing these voices and recognising them as our own is no failure; in fact, this helps us to recognise that we seek happiness in the wrong things most of the time. We are then able to make a deeper journey, finding our true satisfaction in that which lies beyond these…
If you don’t consider yourself ‘religious’ or believe in God – and you haven’t already stopped reading – you might be thinking: “Well, I don’t pray, so how is this at all relevant to me?” Good question. My answer is that I think you probably do already pray. Not in the ‘hands-together-and-eyes-closed’ style you might remember from primary school, nor in the “Lord, if you’re up there, I could really do with some help right now” sense. But rather in a much deeper and yet more ordinary sense: every time you think about questions of ultimate significance; every time you’re stopped in your tracks by the beauty of a flower or birdsong; every time you bubble up in spontaneous gratitude at being alive or feel love which is beyond description… then that is prayer. It’s the kind of prayer we can consciously make a lot more space for during Lent.
The poet Mary Oliver understood this very deeply. In her poem, ‘The Summer Day’ she wrote this:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…
Now that is what Lent is all about. Give something up for Lent, if you want… but only if it helps create a more spacious life.