LENT has connotations of chocolates, wistfully eyed but not eaten, firmly corked wine bottles, and hours spent in prayer and spiritual reading. You give up your favourites for the good of your soul.
The French novelist André Gide (1869-1951) wrote a poignant novella illustrating the dangers of a spirituality revolving around deprivation, Strait is the Gate (La Porte Étroite), a reference to Matthew 7.14. In the book, what starts off as a passionate love story between God and two cousins, Jerome and Alissa, spirals into a torrent of disillusionment, bringing about a brooding self-hatred.
The cousins fall in love, but their ecstatic days are ripped apart when Alissa finds her mother in flagrante delicto with a passing soldier. So appalled is she that she becomes ever more austere. Pressure ratchets up. Alissa hears her pastor preach on “Strait is the gate”, and the couple’s irreconcilable interpretations of the text draw them apart. Jerome believes that the narrow gate will allow them entry because of the profundity of their love; Alissa believes that they can pass through only one at a time.
“Aren’t you strong enough to walk alone?” she asks. “We must each of us find God by ourselves.”
For Alissa, love of Christ precludes human love; so she decides to destroy their love, becoming cruel and devious. She dies in a remote convent, leaving a record for the desolate Jerome in which she tells him her whole life has been a piece of make-believe.
LENT is on its way, a traditional occasion for self-denial, but it can be perilous, as Gide shows. We should not be looking for ways to “give up”, but for opportunities to “give out”.
Most of us have predilections concerning doctrinal issues that tend to drive us apart. The interpretation of scripture, sexual preferences, theological differences, and liturgical practices loom large in the Church, removing any possibility of cohesion. Lent is an unmissable occasion to give out a few sparks of understanding to those who differ from us, and to reflect on our own stance, possibly modifying it.
The question “Is this the truth, or is it no more than my personal opinion?” needs asking. In the novel, Alissa tries to rubber-stamp her views on Christ’s Church, and she comes to a sorry end.
Then there is the giving out that is rooted in prayer; each day, this becomes more meaningful for me. Prayer is transformative, and filled with the fire of God’s love; its power is immeasurable. Prayer for the world goes unseen, and requires an immense giving out of time, a generosity of spirit, and a degree of determination.
It is a wonderful opportunity for the frail and ill to do their part in encircling creation with the spirit of Christ. Take this on board, and we would turn the world into the Kingdom of God overnight.
“Giving out” means resetting our parameters, and reshuffling the way we perceive the world. It is possible to view it cynically as a resource, from which we extract whatever we want: power, money, possessions. If we allow evil to outride good, and if we let rancour burn, and irritability and anger rule the day, and selfishness be our bedfellow, we give nothing to the world.
There is an acid test that we can use. If our conduct is hurtful to others and damaging to the world, it is wrong. Fiddling the tax returns, or whispering unhelpfully about other members of the congregation is not of Christ; nor is llowing dislike to fester or withholding our forgiveness. Failure to welcome the stranger or a penchant for passing judgement on churchgoers is at odds with the Lord’s Prayer.
Toss the coin, and another perspective comes into view, one that the poet Dante describes beautifully. For him, life was a pilgrimage, during which we keep company, and seek to bring about the joy of others, and thereby inch towards the Lord’s Kingdom. “And there, the more souls who resonate together, the greater the intensity of their love, and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.”
IN PHILIPPIANS 2.7, St Paul expounds the concept of kenosis, or self-emptying, whereby Christ emptied himself of the divine, in order to share the human train of suffering. What a supreme example for us to follow.
In his poem “Ode”, with its opening line “We are the music-makers”, Arthur O’Shaughnessy illustrates the depth of “giving out” in words that leave me reeling:
A breath of our inspiration
Is the life of each generation;
A wondrous thing of our dreaming
Unearthly, impossible seeming.
Together with Christ, we are shaping the world’s destiny. Every act, thought, kindness, or cruelty becomes an indelible piece of the universe. This is both sobering and challenging. We can sour the world or sweeten it. Throw out a few sparks of kindness, compassion, happiness, and love, and Christ will surely smile. As Hildegard of Bingen said, 900 years ago: “And so, humankind, full of creative possibilities, is God’s work. . . Humankind is called to co-create.”
“What can I give him, Poor as I am?” Christina Rossetti asked. The answer is surprisingly rich. It is small acts that transform the world — such as a reassuring hand, a sharing of tears, a warm smile, an offer of help to change a lightbulb, or the promise of prayer for a sick acquaintance. I once knew a couple who had taken a disabled neighbour a cooked meal at midday for 12 years. I alone knew, and they never missed a single meal.
So don’t let Lent fizzle out in a conflict over whether we should keep the wine bottle firmly corked, or the chocolates wrapped in their golden box. Let it be an outpouring, a gushing forth of love on to the world.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire (Features, 11 September 2015).