The beginning of Lent is a bit like contemplating a plunge into a cold swimming pool. If one would achieve the end, the only way to minimise the pain is to dive right in. Standing on the side, anxious about the shock of the cold, imagining that it is better postponed or avoided, is foolish. Only by an act of will can one break the paralysis of anxiously “letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’ ”. Once I have done a brisk length or two, I will discover the refreshing temperature of the environment.
Lent is a pool of grace I am supposed to swim in for 40 days to emerge fitter, leaner and cleaner. At the risk of torturing the metaphor, the pool contains the waters of baptism – initially cold, because they remain a shock to the old nature of Adam.
Lent is to enter a different environment, not just to give something up. As far as possible within the limitations of my obligations I am to withdraw from the world to find a wilderness, that is, a place of no distraction, so as to listen more intently to the word of God. Actual and virtual silence – fasting from social media and pointless web surfing – should be part of it, as well as denying pleasures which are not of themselves sinful, but which shield me from depending on spiritual realities for my treats, for what gives savour and zest to day-to-day life.
The sweetest Lent I can remember was one that began in a monastery, on retreat. This gave the necessary full immersion which allowed me to gain momentum. As with everything about the monastic life, it was not about thinking disembodied, spiritual thoughts, or even just praying more. It was about accepting a discipline of life which applied silence and listening to body and mind, as well as spirit. It revealed an apparent paradox, which is that the wilderness of Lent is easier to bear when one is part of a community of fellow travellers, where the environment supports the values of prayer and self-denial.
In fact, this fellow-travelling is no paradox. Lent is not a personal challenge, but a communitarian one. We rightly focus on Jesus’s solitary 40 days in the desert, but Jesus was recapitulating in his Lenten sojourn the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus’s ordeal was an expression of his desire to live for others – for the Father and for his people – not to prove something to his own satisfaction.
A focus on Jesus’s temptations in the desert should not result in the sinking feeling that now it’s my turn to take on the loneliness of the long-distance penitent against impossible odds, but instead the soothing truth that I do not bear fasting and temptation alone or for their own sake. In this season of grace, these are to be consciously offered in union with the sufferings of Jesus and of others, in the belief that they then acquire a different, redemptive purpose. The imperative of Lenten discipline is more easily borne for others than merely for my own satisfaction. To offer sacrifices with a conscious purpose or person in mind can transform how I experience their penitential thrust.
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