For many years I have reacted against Lent.
Part of the reason for this is the excessively penitential nature of some Anglican liturgy. It is one thing to confess one’s sins; but quite another to keep on about it obsessively, as appears to be particularly the case in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’. Surely at some point we need to accept God’s grace and forgiveness?
I also felt the church year was a bit lop-sided… Jesus’ birth and baptism given the full treatment, then the forty days of Lent following, to the day, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – and then we end up at Good Friday! Whatever happened to the three years of Jesus’ ministry on Earth? – when he proclaimed the good news of God’s kingship, healed the sick and performed many miracles? I even wondered whether the Church could only cope with certain parts of the gospel – the baby, the fasting and the cross – but not the supernatural parts, like the healings.
However, over the last couple of years I have been re-thinking my attitude. It’s come about partly because I have recognised how counter-cultural Lent is. The cultural context in which we live seems to insist that if you have a desire, you have the right to gratify it – and no-one has the right to tell you not to. This has never been what the gospel is about: Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit, was precisely to experience desires that he was to overcome and not give in to.
I guess it was my neighbour in college in Durham, Tom Hiney, who first began to whittle away at my Lenten resistance. He was obsessed with Cuthbert, the seventh century Celtic monk who lived as a hermit in the Farne Islands, battling demons and contemplating the presence of Christ. He was therefore following the example – so I discovered later – of the desert fathers, like Antony the Great.
One wintry February morning Tom and I headed up the coast to visit the Farnes. The deal was that he was going in Cuthbert’s footsteps, while I was there to see seabirds. We didn’t plan the journey too well – in fact, if we’d had any sense, we’d have realised that trips to the Farnes in February were few and far between. But we were lucky, and a round-island trip departed shortly after we arrived at Seahouses.
The sea was rough and the weather rather bleak. I was duly satisfied with guillemots, razorbills and eider ducks. Meanwhile, Tom found the whole experience very sobering. He had glimpsed what Cuthbert must have endured on the bare rock of Inner Farne. On returning to land, he said ‘I went on the trip as a fan of Cuthbert. I came back frightened of him’.
I am not about to advocate heading to the desert or to remote, windswept, rocky islands – but these saints of the early church recognised something about following Christ that we in the 21st century dismiss all too hastily. They understood that a key part of following Christ was the quest for holiness and purity – not as an act of spiritual self-indulgence, but so that they could love God and love other people far better. It’s not for nothing that both Antony and Cuthbert were renowned both for their compassion and their healings.
Thus inspired, I am taking the Lent discipline more seriously this year. I had thought it was going to be easy – but ten days in, I am amazed how often I am being offered cakes and biscuits!