From a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral 16.3.14
Christianity is fundamentally a religion of grace and freedom, which makes for certain problems. In particular it makes us both anxious and confused – and sadly Lent can aggravate all this for us.
If we were Muslims and this was Ramadan we wouldn’t need to rack our brains wondering what we are going to give up, and then further wondering whether it counts, and whether or not we can have a bit of it on a Sunday.
There are plenty who would seek to turn Christianity into a religion of simple rules, plainly described and bluntly policed. Lent can sometimes kindle in us a nostalgia for the rigorous ways of simple days, and not all of that nostalgia is wrongly placed.
There is something to be said for simplicity and obedience. It’s just that it isn’t very nice and it’s not very practical. If you want simplicity and obedience get yourself to a nunnery. Once you get there you will realise how very difficult it is, and it won’t be long before you are complaining about the conditions.
As our culture has become distant from the Christian calendar so aspects of that very calendar have an attraction which is both exotic and nostalgic. People beyond the faith feel the spiritual pull of Lent, just as contemporary Christians feel the spiritual pull of the idealised monastery or wilderness.
But the ideal is itself a snare.
In my own ideal wilderness, for instance, there are always lovely sunsets, and dry enough hollows to sleep in and pure springs conveniently placed to provide lovely mineral water.
I have an idealised monastery too. My cell has a wonderful mountain view, the temperature is moderate all year round, there is a well-stocked library and working in the garden is a sheer delight.
In these ideal places I am never bored, tired, overwhelmed, worried, cross, confused or irritated. I am never let down by others and never let myself down. Desire and provision are perfectly matched and when in the monastery we are not keeping silence or in worship (the singing by the way is superb) the conversation is warm, informative and invigorating.
Such is my fantasy. And I know it’s laughable.
But perhaps our fantasy Lents are much the same. We imagine ourselves serenely engaging in spiritual disciplines for the good of our mind, body and spirit, and we further imagine our divine parent smiling beatifically on us, well-pleased that we are making such a good job of it.
The reality, on the other hand is a good deal less smug and good deal more anxious:
- Have I given up the right thing?
- Wouldn’t it be better to take something up rather than give something up?
- Maybe I am being too hard on myself?
- Wouldn’t it be better if I were to read a Lent book rather than drive myself crazy because all can think about is the sweets or wine that I am depriving myself of for no reason other than that it seems that you should give something up in Lent?
- Am I being too easy on myself?
- Am I thinking too much of myself?
- Am I too distracted from serious spirituality?
Our capacity for anxiety is endless; as is our capacity for spiritual invention. These are part and parcel of the spirituality of our religion of grace and freedom.
This means that the anxiety is part of the journey. You have to go through it to get beyond it. That’s the reality. Everything else is fantasy.
We come to God not though fantasies, or as our ideal selves, but through reality, and as our actual selves.
Lent (like Christianity as a whole) is the invitation not to develop fantasies about ourselves, but to come to terms with the reality.