Lent can, if we let it, summon us from the safe harbours of our lives into a wide expanse of existence. Part of the point of deciding to lay things down or to take things up (depending on the decisions we make as Lent begins) is that in doing so we make our lives unfamiliar, even if only in a small way.
We check ourselves as we reach for those familiar safety devices like chocolate or alcohol, and challenge ourselves into a less familiar response.We discomfort ourselves by choosing to do something we might otherwise not do and in so doing open the expanses of our lives in a different way.
One of the things that I try and do every year is to choose to do something that will place me right out of my comfort zone. It might be something that I do, or people that I go and speak to, or an event I might attend. In a sense it doesn’t really matter what it is but I try and do it at least once a year, if not more often.
This is not some odd form of masochism but a genuine attempt to broaden my horizons, to live courageously in the open spaces in the attempt to learn something new about myself, about others and about God. I don’t always do it in Lent but I do strive to do it as often as I can, and Lent is always a good time to ask how well I have done on that front recently.
Each of the Christian seasons has its own flavour or characteristic. Each season offers us something to learn about waiting (Advent) or joy (Easter) or ordinariness and its importance (Ordinary time).
In a way Lent is a more complex season as it offers us a range of characteristics to reflect on but, for me, one of its key flavours is spaciousness; a spaciousness that summons us to lift our eyes from the humdrum constriction of everyday existence; that invites us to strip our cluttered existences back to the bare minimum so that we can discern more fully what brings us life; that challenges us to look deep and hard at those things we try to avoid – and from them to learn who we really are.
The challenge of Lent is to enter an emotional or spiritual wilderness
The question we face during Lent is what wilderness experience we need to encounter this year. Of course few, if any, of us will spend Lent in an actual wilderness or desert. The challenge that Lent brings is the challenge of our willingness to enter an emotional or spiritual wilderness. This is not quite as ‘grand’ a challenge as that statement makes it sound.
Entering the wilderness during Lent requires us deliberately to leave behind our known landscape; those patterns of behaviour and response that mark our lives as we know them. It dares us to lift our eyes beyond our humdrum lives and experiences to the God who awaits us in the wide place, and to see ourselves, God and the world in a new way. In my experience each year Lent brings with it a different challenge to experience and from which to learn.
Sometimes the message it holds out for us is gentle, a balm to the soul. Sometimes it is disturbing and unsettling. Sometimes it is uplifting and inspiring; sometimes bleak and unremitting. Each year is different. Each year we need to ask ourselves where the Spirit is driving us this year.
Lent can, if we aren’t careful, turn into a spiritual strong man or strong woman competition: ‘I have given up everything in my life that I enjoy, will pray for four hours a day, read 20 books and loftily look down on those poor mortals who can only give up chocolate for half of Lent’.
It is an obvious thing to say but, like many obvious things, is worth saying anyway. Lent is not a competition. We do not become more spiritual the more miserable we are. There is no prize to be gained by outstripping others in our Lenten abstinence.
What we ‘do’ for Lent is far less important than who we become.
What we ‘do’ for Lent is far less important than who we become. We love to ask each other what we are giving up for Lent – I know I do – but a more important question is who are you becoming this Lent?
What have you learnt about yourself and about God that is transforming you? It is a far more personal and much more relevant question, though not one we might choose to answer in public.
It may be that you neither give up anything nor take up anything, but find the spaciousness for your journey in another way. It might be that you give up exactly what introduction always do or find something new to try. It might be that you take up something new or stick with whatever you did last year.
The ‘what’ is of little importance. The choice is between you and God. The key thing is discovering the spaciousness you need that will provide you with the opportunity to learn new lessons, to grow in faith, and to give God the chance to meet you in a new way. Last year I gave up what I often give up in Lent – tea, coffee, chocolate and alcohol. I also gave up something new – social media.
I found all of them taxing in different ways but none of them transformed my life quite in the way that following a very simple practice suggested in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s wonderful book In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World did. In this book, Pádraig suggests that rather than feeling the need to analyse, understand and comprehend every experience, hope and fear that we encounter we should greet them with a simple ‘hello’. So last Lent, all Lent, that is what I did.
I said hello to early mornings, which I hate. I said hello to the daffodils that broke into flower. I said hello to my fear about whether I would be able to continue to do the writing that I love. I said hello to the bubbling sense of spring as March drew on and to a couple of vicious reviews of me and my work. I said hello to some fun days out with my husband and children and to my father’s terminal illness.
This ‘saying hello’ gave me the spaciousness I needed last Lent. I am someone whose constant inner conversation crowds out so much else: What should I think? What should I be feeling? What are they thinking and feeling? What have I done wrong? What could I do better? Who is going to criticize me next? My inner chatter is incessant and dull.
We cannot know in advance what the wilderness experience will hold
The gift of the practice of simply greeting life as it was, and moving on, dampened the chatter and kept within me an open space. It took quite some reminding to learn that I didn’t have to work out what I thought or felt about everything. I simply acknowledged their existence. What was transformative for me was that as I did so, a few times I felt the palpable, loving presence of God, standing with me, and greeting the world along with me.
That was the gift of last Lent. The question of what the gift of this Lent will be I cannot know yet – and I cannot even know if this Lent will bring a gift – but I am confident that, if it does bring a gift, the gift will come in ways I do not expect. The ambiguity of the wilderness means that we cannot know in advance what the wilderness experience will hold out for us this time but, good or bad, challenging or soothing, we can be confident that it will change us.
Paula Gooder is Bible Society's Theologian-in-Residence. This is an excerpt from her book Let Me Go There, published by Canterbury Press.
Author: Paula Gooder, 1 March 2017