THE countryside has always scared me. Where others see beautiful rolling hills, I see a terrifying emptiness. As I child, I slept on the outside balcony of our flat in Munich so that the noise of the traffic would woo me to sleep. In contrast, the silence of the country keeps me wide awake, alone with my buzzing thoughts and fears. Suffice it to say, I was not looking forward to my retreat at Hilfield Friary in deepest, darkest Dorset. Hilfield Friary is my idea of Room 101.
On the train down, Canon Lucy Winkett and I were discussing her book Our Sound is Our Wound (Continuum, 2009), which is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book this year. One of the themes, she explained, was the way we use noise as a way of driving out the fear of death. Was that why I like to sleep with the radio on, I wondered.
The first thing I did when I got off the train at Sherborne was to find a cash machine and take out a large wad of cash. The community at Hilfield is Franciscan, and vows of poverty are taken very seriously. I would need some cash as security, and the more the better. I might have to find my way back to the bright lights.
Of course, I fully recognised the absurdity of taking a big wad of cash to a Fransciscan order: what would there be to buy other than Fairtrade chocolate? But I needed the options, and the peace of mind that cash would offer.
I am not sure I fear death as much as Canon Winkett suggests. For me, the fear is abandonment, not counting, not mattering. The terrifying thing about Hilfield is that here your ego is being asked to rely almost exclusively on the fact that you matter to God. Everything else is stripped away. To my mind, those who are not afraid of this have not understood it.
St Augustine of Hippo wrote: “God longs to give you something [the precious gift of himself] but you are not able to receive it because your hands are already too full.” It is the perfect thought for the beginning of Lent.
Although there is a style of Lenten sermon these days that pooh-poohs the idea of giving things up, there is a great deal to be said for the recognition that our lives are full of expensive junk and pointless noise. We think we need all this junk to shore up our sense of self; but most of it is as useless as a wad of cash on judgement day (or at Hilfield). Lent is the time for us all to face our demons and give up our false comforters. We must prepare for the gift of new life.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.