from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019
I am tempted to give Lent a miss this year, partly out of laziness and partly because the whole business of giving up, or not giving up, sets me off on a downward spiral of guilt and thence to guilt induced depression. At the same time, I know that guilt is the great imposter when it comes to the meaning and purpose of Lent.
Lent is a season of purgation, or ‘refinement’, of lightness of being. It is a time for laying bare what is hidden, so that we can be truer to ourselves and thereby more truthful to God. It is a time of unmasking, of getting rid of the distracting clutter which impedes our ability to love better and more truthfully. I am not sure whether giving up alcohol or chocolate really makes any difference in this regard. So what is the work we are really being called to do?
There is a paradox here. It has to do with giving in rather than giving up. Lent is about surrender, and surrendering makes us vulnerable. In surrendering material things, such as things we like to eat or drink, we experience hunger or thirst, usually to a very limited extent, but enough to serve as a reminder of what it must be like to not know where the next meal is coming from, or even if it will come at all. This feeling can of course return us to guilt, unless we are prepared to complement it with a different kind of surrendering, a surrendering that takes us first into the realm of human relationships or, when thought of in a far wider context, of human relatedness.
In both of these contexts, the familial and the global, surrendering has to do with the ‘letting go’ of forgiveness, a repeated ‘letting go’ of the things we would still like to do, say or think about someone who is hurting us, or who has hurt us in the past. This is where forgiving gets confused with ‘forgetting’. They are not the same thing and they do not necessarily belong together. Forgiving is about accepting ongoing pain, rather than pretending to ignore or forget it.
We are all going to have to do something like this after the 29th of March when Brexit will have become something ranging from ‘hard’, to not happening at all. We are going to have to surrender into the pain of those who will wish that things had turned out differently. We shall need to do this surrendering, not simply because it will still be Lent, or even because we call ourselves Christians, but because we belong together as a single body, or nation.The forgiving process also involves bearing the ongoing pain of the other person, group or nation. We surrender to its existence and accept, or understand it, as we do our own. This may in turn permit us to conceive of the possibility that the other person or group is experiencing a similar reciprocity of pain.
From surrendering into the pain of the other we may begin to get an idea of what it is that has been tearing us apart as a nation, at a very deep level, long before the issue of Brexit arose, or even before we joined the EU. But it will not be possible to know what this destructive force is, let alone heal it, until we have all done the surrendering. Some imaginative re-thinking of history might help here.
This is possibly the closest we have come to civil war since the 17th century. There is something implacable about our entrenched attitudes which resonates in a disturbing way with those times. Our fears, and the attitudes they foment, feed other areas of distrust and hatred, all of them having to do with fear of the unknown ‘other’. In the last hundred years, or less, we and our parents saw what these fears and hatreds can burgeon into. At the same time, over-simplification of the truth about the past does not help to rebuild trust in the present. To speak too lightly of forgiveness in regard to the Second World War, for example, suggests appeasement, as was made clear at the time. Many would say that appeasing evil and bullying is not the work of forgiveness, and I would agree with them.
This returns us to the heart of the great Christian prayer ‘forgive us as we forgive them’. It can be helpful to think of these words as a call to forgive, as far as humanly possible, in the manner we forgive others, rather than to the extent that we forgive them. The latter tends to return us to guilt and leads nowhere.
But we can, with grace, work on the manner in which we forgive, how and to what extent we are prepared to bear the pain of those we fear and distrust, or who have wounded us. And if we cannot conceive of a possibility for doing this, might it be possible to surrender them, as we surrender ourselves and our memories, into the darkness of God?