Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lent I - Mrs Lucy Gardner

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; [. . .] Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths, Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all the day long.

Call me odd, but today I find myself breathing a sigh of relief: Lent is finally upon us!

The “Sundays before Lent” have marched us by, Palm Crosses have been burnt; congregations have been ashed; anticipatory tensions have dissolved. We pass now beyond that “ordinary” time which hovers between Epiphany and this most Holy Season of Fasting, into a strangely familiar and yet always extraordinary time of prayer and self-examination.

Now, at last, longed-for peace, quiet stillness and stark austerity are granted their own time and space; the stripping away of adornment and ornament lays bare the starkly simple, undoubtedly beautiful, yet also demanding contours of the ways in which God is moving things from the way they are to the way they should be.

This wilderness respite has arrived unexpectedly welcome for me this year, no doubt underscored by the marked lengthening of days, an increase in temperature, and the first signs of spring emerging from a wintry world.

But herein I am troubled by a worrying thought – might not my relief betray some misguided comfort, some self-indulgence even, in enjoying pious works for their own sake, thus confounding their deepest purpose and intentions?

The danger is always present, that even and precisely in our attempts to repent and believe the gospel, as the Christ who was baptised in the Jordan exhorts us to do; even and precisely as we try to repent and believe, we might exacerbate our sin by drowning out God’s words and actions with our own, making a strange sort of pride out of a false humility.

Or, conversely, there is the coterminous danger that even and precisely in our attempts to offer ourselves for conversion, we might exacerbate our sin by holding something back from God’s eyes, from God’s love, and from God’s redeeming work, out of a kind of shame, which is just another false humility and strange sort of pride.

The season of Lent calls us to full and true humility; it should re-awaken and re-double in us our sense of repentance and our desire for conversion. It calls us to a series of practices crafted in and by the Church as a means of teaching and reminding us that faith is a gift, that the work of redemption in our lives is God’s work, that the work of conversion in our lives is God’s work, that the work of purification in our lives is God’s work, and that the work of sanctification in our lives is God’s work.

Lent is not about replacing the busy-ness of everyday life with a kind of religious busy-ness and self-importance; it is about replacing our busy-ness with God’s busy-ness; it is about replacing self-importance with due recognition of God’s glory: it is about learning to allow God to get on with God’s work in our lives.

These practices of self-denial and of heightened attention to God are also crafted to remind us that this, God’s work of transforming our lives, is an on-going work throughout our earthly lives and perhaps beyond them. And so we are not called so much to be patient with God’s busy-ness, as to be patient with God’s eternal patience.

The annual return of Lent, and its echoes in Friday devotions throughout the year, remind us that God is never finished with us, just as our lives are not finished until we draw our last breath. But just as we must pay attention to the dynamics of the interaction of God’s action, attention and patience with our own patience, attention and action (or perhaps lack of them) in the processes of conversion, so, too, as we pay attention to God, to God’s will and to God’s work, we must in fact also pay attention to ourselves.

But herein lies another danger. The ascetic disciplines of the Church have often been vainly misunderstood. Too easily, Christian contemplation has been confused with other forms of meditation and human attempts at transcendence. In these the spirit is seen as struggling to be free of a body which weighs it down and threatens to drown it in floods of sin and materiality. Too often, if you like, the body has been made a scapegoat for sins of the spirit.

But this misunderstanding is wildly wide of the mark: for whilst perhaps it is true that a spirit cannot sin apart from its connection to its body, it is more so true that a body cannot sin apart from its connection to its spirit. Just so, in this life at least, a soul cannot sin apart from its connection to its body and spirit.

Too often, our contradictory desires, our ability to long for God at the same time as hankering after evil, our internal, spiritual tensions, the divisions between our true, God-made selves and the selves we conjure for ourselves, too often these differences have been mistakenly identified as tensions between body and spirit and soul, rather than as divisions which run right across and through all of them.

But God does not seek to rescue our spirits from our bodies, nor our souls from our bodies and our spirits; God does not seek to rescue some supposed good parts of us, whatever they may be, from our supposedly less noble parts.

God seeks nothing less than our full conversion – a fullness which is a complete change of direction, from following sin to facing God, but a fullness which is also about the turning of the whole person. It is my soul, which encompasses my body and my spirit, just as it holds them together, which God wishes to convert and transform. All of me is what God asks of me.

Those parts of my life, those parts of my thoughts, those parts of my soul, which are not fit to enter into God’s presence, cannot simply be left behind by me, nor can I hide them from God - for all that I might try to hide them from myself. I am to be transformed by God by allowing God’s gaze to rest on all of me, which means I, too, strengthened by grace, must see and offer all of me to God. It will be for God to decide what shall be burned away and what shall be covered up; if I keep something back, if I hold something in reserve, whether through shame or pride, then that sin, that lack of offering all to God, will hold all of me back.

Christian contemplation, then, is a turning to God, a listening and attending to God, a searching for God, a waiting for God, a hearing of God’s judgement, as pronounced in the Coming, the Dying and the Raising of the Word Incarnate; it is always a building up of our knowledge and our love of God, just as it is always also a stripping away, an “unknowing”, of what we thought we knew of God.

But since it is a turning of the whole person to God, since it is listening to God’s judgement, it is also always a learning to see the world and ourselves as we truly are, as God sees things. And precisely as a turning of the whole person to God, it is also always a making of the whole person available to God for the continuation of God’s work in the world.

Christian prayer is not just about moments of physical rest and spiritual reflection, poised resourcefully between moments of action. Christian prayer is about a physical-cum-spiritual training in obedience; it is about learning to do with the whole person - body, spirit and soul - just this: what God wants.

How fortunate for us that God has not merely told or shown us what this is! In the life of Christ, God has already lived a life of obedience for us; and in the life of the Church, God has provided the means for us to become part of the Christ who was baptised for us in Jordan’s river who offered himself, body and spirit, for us on the cross and who offers us union with him, body and spirit, in baptism and in sharing the meal in which he offers us that same self, body and spirit, again and again and again.

In this Holy Season of Lent, in this wilderness respite, as we tread both well-worn and novel paths of the Church’s discipline, let us learn with the Psalmist (whose words have become the Morning Prayer responsory for Lent) to offer our souls, our spirits and our bodies to God; let us learn to allow our whole selves to be brought fully into God’s saving presence:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; [. . .] Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths, Lead me in your truth, and teach me for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all the day long.

Let us pray that we may learn more fully what it is God wants us to be and do, and let us concentrate on allowing God’s grace to train our whole selves - our minds, our wills, our hearts, AND our hands, our feet, our voices, in short, our souls - to be obedient to that will and to show it forth in the world.