Last week I met a dear friend for lunch. She is in her late eighties and lately she has struggled with health issues, including a few falls, the latest causing a broken wrist – a particular handicap for her as she is a writer. She repeatedly tells us that growing old is no fun, yet she is full of life, a tonic when you meet her. She is an attentive observer of the human condition, has a feisty spirit and wry sense of humour. She is also a woman of deep faith and, like the prophets, has the confidence to rail against God. The conversation began like this,
‘I am really angry with Jesus and I’m going to tell him so! We are always being told that that God became human in Jesus so that God could experience all that we humans experience. Well Jesus didn’t experience old age did he! How could he know what all this feels like when he died in his early thirties!’
The mini-rant over, we enjoyed wide-ranging and stimulating conversation, as always, but the encounter challenged me to reflect more deeply on how we reconcile within ourselves failing health, loss of loved ones, our own failures and fears and ultimately our own mortality. I think Lent offers us an invitation to go to ‘the place of the soul‘, as Celtic writers often put it, that place of within us where, at a gut level we know what is true and real and of God, that place within us where transformation can happen – if we are open to it.
How do we understand the invocation, ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ on Ash Wednesday? Could ‘repent’ this year, be an invitation to think differently, reset our inner compass, and perhaps commit to a few simple daily practices that might help bring about a ‘metanoia’ – that radical change of heart to which we are all called and for which we often long.
Our fundamental ‘sin’ – the failure to trust God’s unfailing and eternal love for us?
To begin with could we re-examine our image of God? Do we really believe that we are made in God’s image and are called to grow in likeness of God? Do we really trust that we are loved unconditionally and forever? Even with all our faults and failings, our sins and transgressions, our destructive patterns of behaviour, God only ever looks on us with love and compassion and only ever desires that we feel this love – deeply. Consider the image of the forgiving father Jesus gives us in the gospel, the father who is constantly on the look-out for the return of his prodigal son, whose love pours out in lavish celebration when the errant son finally arrives home. No judgement. No blame. No recrimination. Only open arms and rejoicing.
‘Come back to me, with all your heart, don’t let fear keep us apart’, wrote Dominican priest and musician Gregory Norbert, taking to heart the message of the prophet Hosea. The hymn chorus;
‘Long have I waited for Your coming home to me And living deeply our new lives’,
offers an opportunity for much reflection. Perhaps we have an image of God that needs to be redeemed? Can we repent of any notion of a God who is ever watchful, ready to judge and condemn and instead trust in the God of compassion and forgiveness revealed by Jesus?
The ultimate witness to God’s unconditional love is, of course, the cross. God became human in Jesus to show the extent of God’s love for us. The inevitable outcome of Jesus proclaiming and living God’s kingdom of love, justice and peace, without compromise or collusion with the ‘powers and principalities’ of his time, was death on the cross, the ultimate sacrifice of love, which, in time and even in our day other saints prophets have courageously followed. Can we use this Lent to turn around our thinking and perhaps consider sin more as of not trusting in that love for which Jesus gave his life? What are the fears that ‘keep us apart’ from ‘living more deeply’ in that love?
One simple practice could be to ask ourselves, ‘How can I love more deeply, trust more readily today? Can I affirm and bless another person today? Is there someone I need to forgive and am I ready?
The Cross of Light – ‘What we don’t transform we transmit’ – Richard Rohr
‘Two universal paths of transformation have been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering.’
A more difficult challenge is to reflect on how we deal with our pain and loss, which is at the heart of the Christian story, says spiritual teacher Fr Richard Rohr. If we don’t let our pain be transformed within us, we will inevitably transmit it, he claims. Our parish has as a motif, ‘the Cross of Light’.
It symbolises that on Good Friday, at the point when Jesus trusted completely in his Father and gave up his life, the cross is shattered, death is overcome and the light of resurrection breaks through. Rohr is convinced that the only way we, too, can let go is if we trust that we are held safely and can fall back into the arms of one who loves us extravagantly, as Jesus did. Jesus offers us a way of enabling our pain to breakthrough, a pattern for our daily living. Rather than simply a case of ‘offering it up’, his total surrender breaks through, identifies and is in solidarity with the pain of others, the pain of the world. It is a radically different focus.
Let us pray, this Lent, that we can find that trust, the letting go, knowing we are always held. My dear luncheon friend seems able to live this way, which makes her a blessing for those around her.
May we give thanks for such people in our lives. May we, too, have the courage to understand what it takes to see with the lens of love.
Let us search with our whole soul for that which gives light and hope, healing and compassion.
May we always continue to believe in Spring, especially in the midst of our inevitable Winters.
Margaret Siberry Leeds Justice and Peace Commission
Lent is a time of prayer, alms giving and fasting and in doing this it also gives us the opportunity to take stock. Life has a funny way of teaching us what truly matters at the end of the day. As time goes by, I grow in deeper awareness that each and every day is a gift. Alas, we often take our life and all those who journey with us for granted but once something barges in and thwarts what we consider normality, somehow the mists that surround our consciousness from appreciating each moment begin to lift and then we start to see life in all its stark beauty; beauty so fragile, so precious and so unique. Rather than heading to the depressing news headlines every single day reminding us of our world’s brokenness, of humanity’s greed and of the hold money has on many to the detriment of many others, let us opt to have our own daily positive headlines by outlining wonderful events which occur throughout our humdrum mundane days brimming with little divine tokens of goodness strewn along our life’s path which require our attentiveness to perceive them.
Gratitude is indeed a wonderful approach to our existence here on earth. We are here but once and hence it is indeed worth it to truly savour and enjoy the journey despite the hurdles, the heartaches, the betrayals, the hard work, the difficulties, the doubts, the lack of acknowledgement and the fears which will undoubtedly hamper us as we trudge along.
With gratitude we can choose to see beyond these apparent stumbling blocks on our way and rather decide to see them as opportunities to help us grow through what we go through making us more resilient and strong.
That is the secret before then allowing us to move forward, never getting stuck in a ‘what if?’ or ‘why me?’ attitude as that would drug us into a slippery slope leading to the treacherous vicious vortex of self-pity and self-doubt which suck the beauty out of life.
Life is God’s gift to us. What we make out of it, is our gift back to Him. Hence what sort of gift are we giving back to our Creator God who has loved us into being right from the moment of our conception, continues to love us as we gradually become what He dreams that we grow into and will forever love us beyond our last breath? The choice is in our hands and in the attitude we choose to live our life by – are we overcome by busyness or are we overwhelmed by the divine grace that surrounds us if we have eyes to see it daily? Opt wisely so that when the time comes for us to leave this earth, we would have truly lived life and not merely fleeting existed.
In 2020 we went into Lockdown during Lent. Who would have thought that we are approaching another Lent starting on 17th February in 2021 and we are in Lockdown 3? This time, speaking for myself – and I suspect others too – there is weariness and anxiety and a greater understanding that this “new normal” is going to take longer than we thought last Lent.
However, we now have vaccines which are being given as quickly as systems allow. We each also know from experience what has supported us this far. Perhaps our faith in God? Our faith in other people? Family and friends? TV? The Internet? Perhaps we are trying to concentrate more on the present, rather than thinking about the past and worrying or wishing for the future. And particularly if we live alone we may have developed routines, diversions and self knowledge and self- care to know what has, and has not, got us through this far?
For most of us it is a journey of ups and downs, and that is a natural response to stressful events, loss and anxiety. We are all much clearer about what we have “lossed”: the death of family and friends, health, jobs and money, stability, being in close contact with others, going to our churches to meet our church community face to face, spontaneously planning outings, holidays, meals, theatre trips or watching ordinary life out of the window.
So, what about Lent, where we spend time thinking about Jesus and “journeying” with Him towards Jerusalem to his Death and Resurrection?
Can we cope with it this year? Or do we think our observation of it matters more than ever? We are encouraged to believe in Jesus, who, as God, is suffering with us, in the midst of us rather than a distant God. Though it may not feel like it.
Sometimes I am thinking how I am perhaps in a kind of desert with Jesus, or in a storm or sinking in the sea, or perhaps standing on a mountain and sometimes I stand on solid ground with a sense of purpose. It may vary.
We are all in a strange space between life as we knew it before March 2020 and life after a global pandemic. What are we thinking about how to spend Lent? Some of us may feel we are suffering enough already, or too tired or too “prayed out” or feel abandoned, so considering extra in Lent may be too difficult to consider.
I have been looking at two very different books which I plan to use:
The Book of Psalms (translated by Jesuit scriptural theologian Nicholas King) ,
” The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy
I aim to reflect on both of them this Lent.
I have found a journey of crisis, uncertainty, fear, reflection, support, joy, calm and hope in both these books. In some ways they are complementary, despite the several thousand years and different cultures that separate them.
Charlie Mackesy’s book has a message that is not overtly religious but I believe it is profound, spiritual and relational. It is a book is for all age groups and it is a journey about love, friendship, kindness, wisdom and hope, and I find it very inspiring.
The Psalms express fear, anger, distress, fatigue, remorse, forgiveness, hope, thanksgiving and praise. Nicholas King helpfully says that “when the psalmist talks of “my enemies”, for example, we are no longer in touch with the original reference, and sometimes it is easier to pray such verses as a reference to those inner thoughts that upset us or alienate us.” I found this explanation useful, enriching and not physically war-based. I have now been reading the concept of enemies and struggles in the context of the global pandemic and the thoughts and feelings I have about it. I offer extracts from some of the Psalms.
Extracts from Psalm 42:"Just as the deer longs for springs of water,
so my soul longs for you....
Why are you so very sad, my soul?
Why are you troubling me?....
Deep calls upon deep, at the sound of your waterfalls,
all your billows and your waves have gone over me....
Why are you so very sad, my soul?
And why are you troubling me?
Hope in God, for I shall sing God's praises.
the one who saves me, my God."
Psalm 42 talks about enemy oppression and being asked by enemies where is our God? I am thinking that the enemy in this Psalm might include the fear, doubt and loss that Covid 19 has on our lives. Ultimately out of longing and sadness comes eternal safety and hope.
From Psalm 69:
" Save me, O God, for the waters have reached my soul.
I am stuck fast in deep mud, and there is nowhere to stand;
I have gone into the depths of the sea, and a storm has swamped me;
I am exhausted from crying out; my throat is sore;
my eyes are worn out from [looking] expectantly for God....”
These words remind me of media interviews from exhausted doctors and other health care workers. And I sometimes feel swamped and exhausted by all the news and statistics about Covid 19.
Then in Psalm 23 God is a loving shepherd:
“For even though I should walk
in the midst of the shadow of death,
I shall not fear evil,
for you are with me;
your stick and your rod,
these have comforted me.”
N. King suggests the the stick may be for support and the rod to ward off “attackers”, or in my view those intrusive negative thoughts.
In Psalm 46 “ a psalm about hidden things” is how King translates the title:
“God is our refuge and strength,
a help in the troubles that find us out.
Therefore we shall not fear
when the earth is stirred
and the mountains are shifted
in the heart of the seas”....
“The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our helper.”
Then we are given wings to fly away and rest in Psalm 55, and shelter in Psalm 63.
From Psalm 55“My heart was disturbed inside me,
and the fear of death fell upon me.
Fear and trembling came upon me,
and darkness covered me.
And I said, “Who will give me
wings like a dove,
that I may fly away and be at rest?
Look, I have travelled far in my flight
and made my lodging in the desert.”
From Psalm 63:“I shall dwell in your tent for ever. I shall be sheltered
under the shelter of your wings.”
It seems to me that this Lent the Psalms may help us to find words for our fear, sadness and hidden thoughts in a pandemic and also the hope and rest that many of us believe will come through God. Some of us may place ourselves in the imagery of the desert and the storms but also the protection of the tent or under the shelter of wings.
And what of the words and illustrations in Charlie Mackesy’s book “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”? These characters meet and learn about themselves through each other and philosophise profoundly on behalf of us all as they journey together: (There are no page numbers.)
“Everyone is a bit scared said the horse, but we are less scared together. Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.”
This might be helpful for reflection on our own fear and expression of emotion, and as we read of the tears and exhaustion in Psalms, including Psalm 69.
“Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.” (said by the Boy.)
The Psalms give vent to internal emotions, that are at times expressed openly and at other times are on the inside, or under the cover of darkness, or may be the “enemies” mentioned so often in these Psalms. As Nicholas King said previously the warring enemies of the Psalms may be the conflicting turbulent thoughts we have at times. For healthy mental wellbeing we are often encouraged to reflect on our inner thoughts and try to work through them. We may need to express them in some way. Sometimes we need to ask for support.
“ Asking for help isn’t giving up”, said the Horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”
And sometimes we need to focus on our blessings and look at what we value:
“When the big things feel out of control…focus on what you love right under your nose.” “This storm will pass,” said the Horse.
And if we feel tired with contemplating the journey through Lent we each discern what we will do, remembering that Resurrection and hope follow Lent and the Crucifixion. The Fox doesn’t say much but joins the journey, helps the others and not talking is accepted too… Perhaps this year we allow ourselves some leeway and “time out” when we need it.:
“ Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses” said the Mole.”.
And if we need reminding how far we have travelled the Covid 19 journey as we enter Lent:
“ We have such a long way to go”, sighed the Boy. “Yes, but look how far we’ve come” said the Horse.”