Looking back on Lent

Not knowing what to do this Lent

Lent has drawn to an end and I feel I did not offer much. If anything, Lent has been a little easier than the rest of the year.

I always thought Lent was about giving up something you enjoyed, usually some kind of food. Over the last few years, I have develop a chronic health condition and have already given up all the usual suspects I might normally avoid for Lent – tea, coffee, alcohol, chocolate, sugar, to say nothing of dairy and soya. Sometimes it feels like Lent all the time.

Over the last year or two, I tried to add something in instead of giving something up, like reading a spiritual book at bedtime. This year I was so exhausted that I couldn’t concentrate on ‘Catholicism’ by Robert Barron, although I intend to re-read it sometime. It is an excellent book.

I was several weeks into Lent and unsure what my Lent was about when it seemed that all I was being asked to do was rest.

That might seem easy, but not for me. In an attempt to improve my health, I have been reading ‘Decoding Your Fatigue’ by Alex Howard. He talks about the loads put on the nervous system by external events and also the loads placed on it by our own choices. He identifies five personality patterns which put excessive demands on the body. I recognised myself in all five of them, but particularly in achiever and anxiety patterns.

Gradually I realised this Lent that in order to rest, which I desperately needed to do, I would have to give up my drive to achieve as well as my persistent worries. That doesn’t mean having no goals or not being concerned about others. But it has meant trying to listen to my body, which tells me when I am doing too much. It has meant resisting the temptation to score one more item off my to-do list before going to bed.

With anxiety it has meant doing anything which clearly needs to be done to alleviate a situation and then leaving it in God’s hands.

Of course, all this has been imperfect. It’s incredibly difficult to change a strong achiever personality and resist the temptation to do just one more thing. Likewise, it’s hard to step out of the groove of worry and trust. However, I think I have made some small progress in that I feel less exhausted and some of the physical symptoms have eased.

Challenges in Lent

Because I have begun to feel better physically, it fees like Lent has been a bit of a skive (Scottish word meaning you skip something you should be doing, eg skiving classes at school). How can resting be Lent? It has not just been about rest though. My Lent has also been bracketed by a painful challenge to faith and to trust.

On the first Sunday in Lent, we read about the devil leading Jesus to the parapet of the temple and tempting him to throw himself down, because ‘He will put his angels in charge of you to guard you.’ (Luke 4: 1-13)

Of course, Jesus resisted temptation and did not do what the devil wanted. As I heard this reading it hit me like a punch in the stomach that my sister gave in. She experienced the exact same temptation Jesus had, and she couldn’t hold out. What did she think at that final moment? I’ll never know. Perhaps she just wanted the inner pain to end.

After her death, a friend suggested the hymn, based on Psalm 26, ‘May the angels come to greet you, may they speed you to paradise, May God enfold you in his mercy, May you have eternal life.’ I tried to imagine that although her body died, her soul was embraced by the angels, and I try to have faith that God has mercy on her. But right at the beginning of Lent, it was a painful challenge to be reminded of the way she ended her life.

My sister died on a Thursday shortly after 8 pm. That’s why it feels particularly important to take part in the Maundy Thursday liturgy which begins at 8 pm and remembers the night before Jesus died and the instigation of the Eucharist. I went this year without feeling any particular emotion although I had, as I do in every Mass, the intention of praying for my sister’s soul and for the lives of all of us devastated by her death.

A betrayal

As I listened to the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, I realised that this is the small part of the Passion narrative which I have been asked to bear. What is a suicide if it is not a betrayal of our love?

I know that my sister was ill, that she didn’t get the help she needed, that she had just been put on a new medication which carried the risk of ‘suicidal ideation’. I can try to rationalise what happened, but there is still a part of me which feels guilty – if only I’d done more, perhaps I could have saved her – as well as a part of me which feels betrayed. I am like the giant in the ‘Neverending Story’ who has just seen his friend ripped away from him by a destructive force called the Nothing. He looks at his hands and says, ‘These are strong hands, but they weren’t strong enough.’ I wasn’t strong enough. My love wasn’t enough.

And Jesus love was not enough for Judas. His disciple gave into the temptation to betray him for thirty pieces of silver.

I often think about Judas. What happened in his childhood to make him so hungry for money? Did his father lose his land? Did his family become homeless? Did he think that money and a piece of land would give him the security he craved?

And how many temptations did he resist during the three years he was with Jesus, before finally caving in?

Father Ron Rolheiser writes compassionately about suicide and the notion of a happy death:

The circumstances of someone’s death, when those circumstances are sad or tragic, should not become a prism through which we then see that person’s whole life. What this means is that if someone dies in a morally compromised situation, in a moment or season of weakness, away from his or her church, in bitterness by suicide, or by an addiction, the goodness of that life an heart should not be judged by the circumstances of that death.’

I remember that Jesus also lost a much-loved friend to suicide. I believe, in fact I know, that he did not stop loving Judas after he was betrayed by him.

I pray regularly for those who have died by suicide. As I listened to the Maundy Thursday liturgy, I felt I must include Judas in my prayers. As in the case of my much-loved sister, God alone knows the whole story.

My prayer for myself and my family this Easter and also for others is that in the middle of what seems like an other dark year, the joy of Easter will break through.

Lousy at Lent

It’s the last week of Lent, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty lousy at it. For one thing, we have lots of birthdays in Lent and children have to have cake. I’ve been told that birthdays are an exception, like feast days.

This made me wonder. How many saints have feast days in Lent? I can only think of only St Joseph (19th March) and St. John Ogilvie (10th March). Did anyone ever try to find as many saint’s feast days as possible so they could wriggle out of Lent? Okay, I know that’s not the spirit of the thing.

This Lent I’m realising that it’s not so much about what you give up as what you put in. My resolution of going to bed earlier to spend some time in prayer or reflection did not go too well. Just five more minutes on facebook, email or online news, I told myself each night and five became ten and before I knew it, I was heading up to bed at my usual time too tired and too distracted to try to pray.

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Show me your face

Hmm. Okay, I’ve tried harder over the last week and have finally managed to finally get into my Lenten book Muestrame Tu Rostro by Fr Ignacio Larrañaga (literally, show me your face, but the English translation is Sensing Your Hidden Presence).

Ignacio Larrañaga’s book From Suffering to Peace helped me through a difficult time, and I was looking forward to reading another of his books. However, I got bogged down in the first few chapters of Muestrame Tu Rostro. If I hadn’t made a commitment to at least try to read it during Lent, I’d probably have abandoned it.

The first problem was that I was trying to read the original version. I love reading Spanish, but my ambitions sometimes exceed my abilities. I have to read slowly, and it takes a lot more commitment to persevere with a Spanish book than an English one.

My second stumbling block was that Fr Larrañaga starts a book about prayer by talking about the difficulties and discouragements of praying. He illustrated this with examples of people who dedicated their lives to God, but never experienced anything but dryness in prayer and a sense of God’s absence. Hmm, I can recognise myself when it comes to the feeling that nothing is happening, and perhaps maybe I’m just talking to myself.

A lot of work for little effort?

He also talks about how prayer, unlike many other things in life such as studying a language or practising music, doesn’t yield results which related to the effort put in. For instance, someone could keep an all-night vigil in church and leave with absolutely no feeling of peace, and another person could turn their thoughts briefly to God as they walk through a crowded station and feel filled with peace.

Fr Larrañaga also talks about the transcendence of God and the inability of our finite minds to grasp the mystery of an infinite God. As soon as we approach what we think is an encounter with God, God slips out of our grasp and recedes further. After reading the first few chapters, I felt the same way about Muestrame tu Rostro as I felt about the Cloud of Unknowing: this is just too discouraging and I want to give up on the book and maybe give up on prayer, too.

However, I persevered and although I’m only about half-way through, I’m glad I did. The book becomes more encouraging as you go on, with practical advice on prayer, such as using the Psalms or set prayers to start you off. It has exercises to help people empty their minds and prepare themselves for prayer.

Unfortunately, I have nodded off each time I tried the meditations, but no less a person than St. Therese of Lisieux admitted to falling asleep in prayer. She said that just as parents love their children when their asleep, God continued to love her when she fell asleep in prayer.

I have also found useful what Fr Larrañaga says about abandoning ourselves to God. If there is something we can do to change a situation, we get behind it and give it one hundred percent. If nothing remains to be done, then we stop resisting the situation and let go so that we don’t hurt ourselves and others by our non-acceptance. Fr Larrañaga gives some simple prayers for accepting what can’t be changed: physical appearance, personality, our parents, hurts from the past.

Making time for prayer

He also emphasises the importance of setting aside time each day to withdraw into prayer. If we don’t have these ‘off’ times, we become distracted and pulled in many directions, exactly what I experience when I click quickly from one internet page to another. Fr. Larrañaga says that when our minds are full of anxieties and thoughts about what needs done, an encounter with God is almost impossible.

I’m still reading, but now find the book encouraging rather than overwhelming. Fr. Larrañaga emphasises that it is important to set time aside for prayer, even if we don’t ‘feel’ anything or see results. He often repeats that faith, hope, patience and perseverance are necessary. Even if our prayers don’t seem to do anything, we believe by faith and hope that God’s grace is at work.

Wishing you a peaceful holy week.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

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I’ve been a bit troimh-cheile over the last week, which is a Gaelic word that means being in a bit of a guddle, which is a Scots expression that means, well, a bit all over the place. A bad cold has left me not wanting to do too much. I wanted to share some thoughts on a TV programme on Lent and am only now getting around to it.

Last week, I watched Traisg ‘s Caisg, a programme on how Lent is kept in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is in Scottish Gaelic with English subtitles and has some lovely shots of island landscapes. I realise that anyone outside UK can probably only watch the clip. However, the programme gave me a lot to think about.

A bit of background

Firstly, a bit of background. The Western Isles stretch north to south about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. Thanks to causeways, you can travel along the whole 120 km length with only two ferry crossings. They are also known as the Outer Hebrides, the name coming from the Irish St Bridget.

The Southern Isles, Barra and Vatersay, north to Benbecula, contain some of the few Catholic communities which survived both the Reformation and the Highland clearances. The Northern Isles, North Uist to Lewis, are strongholds of reformed Presbyterianism. Despite the religious differences, the islands share the same language, culture and administrative council.

It’s worth saying a bit more about this. Until the mid 19th century, the main church in the Scottish Highlands was the Church of Scotland. However, people became unhappy that their landlord had the power to choose the local minister. After the Highland clearances, when landlords evicted large numbers of people from their ancestral homes, feelings came to a head. In 1843, 450, or about a third of the ministers, walked out, giving up their churches and manses to form the Free Church.

The new Free Church was particularly strong in the Highlands. The Free Church also did a lot to mitigate the effects of the Highland potato famine. It had radical roots, even if it is now seen as the status quo. Ministers gave up their churches, homes and a reliable source of income. Sometimes they preached from boats until new churches were built.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Highland Free Church has fragmented many times due to disagreements over doctrine and church practice (just take a look at this diagram, and it doesn’t show all the splits). Even in the last year, people have formed new churches, rather than resolving differences.

Whatever the particular branch, Highland Presbyterian churches tend to be distinct from the Church of Scotland. Usually, they observe a strict Sabbath, and have unaccompanied Psalm singing instead of hymns, although this has eased up recently. Another difference, which was strong when I was growing up, is that Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in church. When I was a child, we simply marked them as commercial festivals, a time to give presents and over-eat at Christmas and to get chocolate eggs at Easter.

A look at Lent and Holy Week

This brings me back to the programme on Lent in the Western Isles. It gave interesting insights into local traditions, such as eating a chicken on Shrove Tuesday or putting no iron in the ground on Good Friday. The programme highlighted not just the forty days of Lent, but also Catholic traditions around Holy Week from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday.

I wish I had watched something like this a few years ago as it brought together Holy Week traditions which I just picked up as I went along. The programme explains how the events around Jesus’ passion are re-enacted in the church, such as the covered statues and bare altar on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s death and burial, or the five pieces of incense put into the Easter candle, to symbolise the wounds of Christ.

I was wondering why the programme went into such detail on Holy Week, when I realised that it was probably aimed at helping Protestants understand how Catholics prepare for Easter.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

It took me a long time to accept Easter. Many years ago, I attended my first Easter service in a Baptist church, and my reaction was anger. What did these people have to be happy about? Wasn’t religion supposed to be a long, cheerless trudge without any joy?

I was a considerable way into my journey towards Catholicism before I could stop looking over my shoulder at the church tradition I had come from. For a long time, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were right about not celebrating Easter and that the Catholic tradition was wrong.

Another thing, I struggled with was the leftover belief that Catholics worship statues and symbols instead of Christ. This programme on Lent did a very good job of showing that Christ as at the heart of Catholic practice related to Lent and Easter. We use images and symbols as an aid to bring us deeper into a mystery which goes beyond our senses and our mental processes. The symbolism of a church in darkness, and the Easter fire being used to light the candles which will then bring new light into the church, can help us move deeper into the mystery of the resurrection.

I also think that these signs and symbols speak to the child within us. After all, don’t we have to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

Nit-picking

As I write this, I’m enjoying my first piece of chocolate since the start of Lent, and my first cup of coffee in, well, not quite so long as that. I haven’t met my own goals. Giving up some of my favourite food and drink was the easier bit. However, there were so many exceptions: chocolate cake at family celebrations, times when I was invited out and didn’t want to make a fuss, and a few occasions when I was working and felt that I couldn’t stay awake without a strong cup of coffee.

Giving up what I consider as ‘my time’, was much harder. By the time I pack the oldest child off to bed, I don’t want to talk to anyone. My husband doesn’t get a look-in. I don’t feel like trying to talk to an elusive entity called God who doesn’t seem to reply in any direct way, although if I pray regularly, little glimpses of a response seem to slip quietly through my defences.

A few nights I did manage to keep my Lenten resolution and go to bed early to do yoga and meditation in order to calm my mind. Each time I did this, I felt so much more alive and peaceful that I resolved to do it more often. The next night, however, I found myself surfing the internet or finding some urgent thing which needed done. By the time I dragged myself to bed, goggle-eyed, I was too tired for exercise or prayer.

I didn’t manage the fast on Ash Wednesday, but I thought I had Good Friday sorted. I had read the rules. Every Catholic over the age of fourteen is required to take part in a not too onerous fast, which means eating only one meal plus two snacks which together don’t constitute a full meal. Even though I was staying with my Protestant family, I managed to skip breakfast without anyone noticing, and eat a meagre snack for lunch. That afternoon, I congratulated myself on finally managing to keep one of these new Catholic rules as I experienced hunger pangs.

I was half-way through my one meal of the day, when I realised that I was eating meat, and therefore breaking another rule: no meat on Fridays during Lent. Since I had made the dinner myself, I had no excuse although it is harder to cook when you’re away from home.

Our inability to properly keep the requirements of the law is a recurrent theme in the New Testament. Galations 2:15 and 16 says, ‘We who were born Jews and not gentile sinners have nevertheless learnt that someone is reckoned as upright not by practising the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ.’

Why do we have Lent, then? Is it just to throw up our own inadequacies and lack of self-discipline, or is it to help us realise our need for Christ and enable us to appreciate his death and the joy of his resurrection?

One of my Catholic in-laws kindly sent me a card wishing me joy for my first Easter as a member of the Catholic church. I was really looking forward to Easter, especially since the church in which I was brought up was so reformed that we didn’t celebrate either Christmas or Easter. However, it didn’t happen. One child became sick and couldn’t go out, and on Easter Sunday itself, I discovered that another had head lice. Aaarch!

I have spent most of Easter Sunday nit-checking. By some miracle, the lice haven’t spread to the rest of the family. My external circumstances aren’t particularly peaceful. Shortly after I sat down to write this, the dog knocked my precious cup of coffee over my foot. It was another reminder that faith and spirituality isn’t just, or even mainly, about sitting in church trying to have holy thoughts and be on my best behaviour. Faith has to run through the nitty-gritty things in life (excuse the choice of words), or it isn’t relevant.

I did manage to get out in the sun with the family. For anyone who’s reading this, I wish you a peaceful, healthy and nit-free Easter.