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.

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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?

So what is it about rules ….

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I love being Catholic, except at the start of Lent …

I’m thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent and about why religions have rules. All the monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have rules about what you can and can’t do if you want to remain in communion with the religion.

Different kinds of rules

Some of these are moral rules, such as not killing, stealing or sleeping with someone elses’s spouse. A lot of these moral rules have been absorbed into society as either laws or expectations of what is decent behaviour.

Other rules are to do with taboos or showing respect in a place of worship. For instance, taking your shoes off in a mosque or covering or uncovering your head in church depending on which sex you are, or being silent at set times.

The third type of rule is trickier. I’m thinking here of the rules to do with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and giving up something for the six weeks of Lent. This would be similar to Ramadam for Muslims.

My experience of Protestant churches was that there are generally no rules to do with fasting. However, the church in which I was brought up had high expectations of how we should keep the Sabbath. We were told not to do, say or think anything which wasn’t connected with God or religion. Needless to say, I totally failed. Although this rule was based on the fourth commandment, the way it was interpreted was so strict that I think it probably came under the third type of rule: religious practice.

So what is it about rules ….?

So, why is this third type of rule there? Not for a moral reason. After all, I’m probably not going to upset anyone if I eat chocolate during Lent.

When I was a young woman, still chafing from religious rules which were almost impossible to keep, I would have argued that this type of rule is only there to place a heavy burden on people. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against the Pharisees and their rules, which often drove people away from God, rather than bringing them closer. In no less than three Gospels, Jesus says that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause ‘these little ones’ to stumble (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).

After my experience of legalistic religion, I didn’t want anything to do with Christianity for many years. Now that I’ve become Catholic, I find that there are rules related to religious practice, such as fasting for an hour before Mass or giving up something for Lent. These aren’t onerous rules and exceptions can be made, for instance if you are ill or poor or a guest at a meal, you are excused from fasting on Ash Wednesday.

Before becoming Catholic, I became quite annoyed when my husband encouraged the children to give up chocolate for Lent. I couldn’t very well guzzle chocolate if the kids were giving it up. I hated giving up my autonomy for some silly religious reason.

My first reaction to Lent helps me to understand what it’s about. I think that Lent and other rules related to religious practice are there as an act of devotion. By making small changes in my behaviour, remembering not to eat or drink right before Mass, or buy chocolate during Lent, I’m voluntarily giving up a small part of my freedom. My thoughts turn to the reason why I am doing this, and I remember God.

I think it’s a bit like rearranging your day so that you can see someone you love, or going out of your way to cook something they like or go with them somewhere. If we love someone, we give up a bit of our autonomy to share things with them.

An act of devotion?

For various, very good reasons, I’m not giving up a lot this year in terms of food. A bigger challenge might be to give up time, to stop writing or surfing the internet a bit earlier and go to bed with a book which helps me turn my thoughts to God. Whether we give up big things or small things, the aim should be to love God more rather than see how well we can keep a rule.

My final thoughts bring me back to the rules of my childhood. I could brush my hair on the Sabbath Day, but not wash it. I could polish my shoes for church, but not wash clothes. We could cook Sunday dinner, but not prepare it; all the vegetables had to be washed and peeled the night before. I wasn’t allowed to play and had to sit still, even on sunny days, and read Christian books.

I experienced the many rules around the Sabbath as constricting and stifling. However, the old people in the church loved keeping the Sabbath as an act of devotion. What crushed the life out of me, was a delight to them.

Practices which bring one person closer to God, might drive another away. For this reason, it’s good that the church isn’t too prescriptive about rules. There will be some people who will give up a lot during Lent and spend many hours in prayer, and others, like me, who can only manage small things. Whether what we do is big or small, it’s important to do it as an act of devotion rather than just for the sake of keeping a rule.

Easter joy

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Joy was the emotion that struck me the first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter.

As a child, I saw church as a kind of Sabbath day penance. We were Presbyterians and proud of it. We sat on hard pews and listened to a long sermon which lasted at least an hour. The minister said a lot about sin, but not much about love or joy.

In between the two long church services, we were quiet, not talking or laughing or playing, because the Sabbath day belonged to God, and God liked you to be solemn and serious.

The first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter, I was just beginning to think about becoming Catholic. I didn’t understand the context of Easter Sunday coming after more than six weeks of preparation. My vague idea of Lent was that it had something to do with giving up sweeties. It was quite a while before I realised that Catholics don’t just give up something during Lent; they also try to give more of themselves by making time for prayer and sharing their time and money with others.

Lent is something which I’m still learning about. Last year I was shocked to discover the emptiness of the church on Friday, when the Host is taken out of the tabernacle and the statues are shrouded in cloth to symbolise Christ being in the tomb.

This year, I felt that I learnt more about Holy Week, when the church re-enacts the last week of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the last supper and his death on the cross. Even though I couldn’t attend a Mass during Holy Week, I went into the church to pray and tried to go through the daily Mass readings, which followed the last week of Jesus’ life. These events occurred 2000 years ago, as far as we count time, but I felt that through the church I was participating in them in some way.

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I knew on an intellectual level, that Christ had risen and that this would be celebrated in the Easter vigil on Saturday. However, I felt that I was sharing in the Jesus disciples’ confusion and grief, and in their long vigil between his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Holy week seemed very long and I got weary concentrating on the events which led up to Jesus death. Whenever, I went into a church to pray, all I saw was a man on the cross, his face distorted by intense pain. Wasn’t this focus on suffering and death a bit macabre and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the fact that he has risen, rather than making ourselves dwell on the fact that he went through an unfair trial on trumped up charges and that he was handed over to Roman soldiers and tortured to death?

Despite these feelings, I recognise that if Christ hadn’t suffered, I wouldn’t be able to relate to Him. If He had come in triumph rather than sharing in our poverty and smallness and failure and death, I might subjugate myself to Him as King, but He wouldn’t be my Saviour. If Christ hadn’t suffered, if God hadn’t suffered, then He could not understand my suffering.

Without death, resurrection has no meaning, and Easter is just a muddle of fluffy bunnies and cute chicks and sweet chocolate. Without the silence and darkness of the church on Easter Saturday, the candles that are brought in during the Easter vigil would have no significance. It is only because I tried in my flawed way to take part in Lent and Holy week that the joy of Easter Sunday broke over me like a wave.   

Lent …. again

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Just when there is a stretch in the days, and the wind dies down and the sun casts a pale shadow through the cloud, Father K stands up at the end of Mass, waves an envelope with the SCIAF collection box, and reminds us that Lent begins on Wednesday.

What, Lent? Already? My health hasn’t been great recently, so I haven’t indulged in coffee or chocolate for a while. Now that my stomach has finally settled down, I find out that there are only a few days left to enjoy it.

Why, oh why, oh why, did I join a church which has an annual six week period of penance? Because I had to, is the answer. I’m not talking about external pressure, but about the still, small voice inside, which said that this was the way I must go. I might not always like it, or feel like doing it, and I might moan about it, but I have to go on.

What I used to think about Lent

As a Protestant, I had very vague ideas about Lent. I knew that it had something to do with Pancake Tuesday, and using up all your eggs. However, I thought that it was a sort of medieval thing which people didn’t do any more.

I got a bit of a shock some years ago when my husband announced that it was Lent, and that it would be a good idea for us all to give up chocolate until Easter.

My angry reaction was out of all proportion to the small sacrifice involved. I enjoyed my wee nibble of chocolate now and then and no-one, certainly not some stuffy, traditional church, was going to dictate if and when I would give it up.

However, I knew that small children will not give up chocolate biscuits, if they see their mother eating them, and so I went along with it. I started without much good grace, but soon realised that giving up something made me conscious of others who had much less than I had. It made sense. Perhaps this was the first step on a slippery slope which eventually brought me into the Catholic church.

How things are now

Even though I’ve done Lent a few times, it doesn’t get any easier. I’m a bit apprehensive. Last year was difficult. Without even trying to turn up at church in a penitent mood, I found that I was quite affected by Lent and became very conscious of my own failings and inadequacies.

In a world where resources are so unevenly distributed, and where foodbank collection points have become a permanent feature in the local supermarket, I hope that doing without small luxuries for a while, will help me to be grateful for what I have, and remember others who don’t have enough.

Lent is mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. When I think of Lent, I remember that Christ gave up far more than I can ever understand just to take on human form. I’m sure that he enjoyed his human life. He started his public ministry at a wedding feast, after all. However, he willingly gave up his life.

I’ve just used up all the cocoa in the house. I’m still not sure what this year’s Lent will involve, but I think that it may require an internet diet. If I write this blog, it might just be to put up quotes I’ve found useful. Best wishes for the Lenten season.