First things first
LENT is almost upon us. I was immensely pleased that, this year, St Valentine’s Day came before Ash Wednesday. It’s so much easier to get our priorities sorted out when this happens. No ghastly moral dilemmas about whether we can allow ourselves pink champagne and chocolates. When 14 February falls within Lent, it is— to use theological terminology — a bit of a bummer. (In case that doesn’t strike you as particularly theological, let me render it into German to give it a bit more scholarly weight: ein kleines Bümmerchen.)
I expect if I consulted more widely — say, at St Maniple’s — I’d be reassured that you never fast on a feast day anyway; so what’s the problem? No wonder there are so many saints’ days in the calendar. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of the sun being below the yard-arm somewhere in the world — chin chin!
The language of love
THE other route out of this Lent/Valentine tension is to say it with flowers — or, indeed, sausages. I’m still wondering whether that was genuine, or if some prankster hacked into the M&S account to launch the “heart-shaped, lightly truffled” love-sausage on an unsuspecting nation. This is not just any innuendo, it’s a Marks and Spencer’s innuendo. You can tell that from the phrase “lightly truffled”. I, for one, will be using “lightly truffled” in as many contexts as possible from now on.
Heart of the matter
LENT is always a good time to consider what it means to be tempted. The word “temptation” has rather lost its force. It’s been relegated to those “hand hovering over the wine bottle on a school night” moments, along with sin. Both words are in the naughty-but-nice bracket — lightly-truffled, if you will.
“I’m tempted” doesn’t come close to conveying the soul-wrenching anguish of severe spiritual testing; those times when, somehow, the door of your very being has swung open, and the east wind is slicing in.
Jesus was hungry in the wilderness. But the test was not presented in the form of secular temptation: “Ooh, I could murder a bread roll. I shouldn’t really. Oh, go on then.” That kind of thought process doesn’t engage the core of your being, where the deep meanings are, and where you question the very ground you’re standing on. If you are the Son of God. . .
“Christian! dost thou see them On the holy ground How the powers of darkness Compass thee around?” I prefer the other version: “How the troops of Midian Prowl and prowl around?” Prowling is a good description. It captures that sense we sometimes have of a personal attack lurking behind the insoluble problems, the blighting accidents, and the dire predicaments that come our way. “Our adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
I’ve come to see that the east wind of testing finds its way in through the hairline faults in our personalities. This is why it feels personal: it’s tailor-made for the individual. We’ve all been on the receiving end of the blithe advice “Don’t let it get to you”, when it already has got to us. The fiery dart has sunk in, right up to the shaft. It will now be followed up — voom! — by another: I shouldn’t let it get to me! Before you know it, you’re locked in the throes of Bad Person Syndrome.
I speak especially to my sisters and brothers from a sound Evangelical background, here. We rock in this department. Seriously, Catholics may bang on about guilt, but we’d totally own them in the Bad Person Olympics.
Slings and arrows
YOU may already know the particular pitch in which the east wind whistles through your life at 3 a.m. Bad Person Syndrome. Shame meltdown. What People Will Think. More incoming crap than you have fans to disperse it. Who Do You Think You Are? Panic over making mistakes and letting people down. Over-identification with things you’re not responsible for. Racking anguish over pre-imagined catastrophes. These things are all forms of testing in the soul’s wilderness.
And here comes the sneaky, follow-up temptation: a belief that, if you only kitted yourself out properly with the full armour of God and the shield of faith, you’d be invulnerable to getting hurt. “If you are a child of God,” the tempter whispers, “you shouldn’t let it get to you.”
This is to lose sight of the fact that the testing of Jesus was permitted and purposeful. It was not permitted so that he would be invulnerable to getting hurt. But it did mean that, when the opportune time came round, and the testing was served up again (“If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”), that battle had already been fought and won.
MAYBE — racy, lightly truffled thought for an Evangelical — maybe God wants me to be happy? And maybe he is patiently dismantling the things that stand in the path of my happiness? To my dismay, the things being dismantled seem to be the very barricades and defences against being hurt that I have spent a lifetime building. Things such as knowing everything, always being right, being low maintenance, never making a mistake, pleasing everyone, and generally being perfect without looking like a bighead and a show-off.
I can report that, over the years, these defences have been almost 100 per cent successful in deflecting praise, positive feedback, and compliments, while simultaneously letting through every single fiery dart hurled my way. So away with barricades this Lent. Let’s walk without defending ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we are left unprotected. About two years ago, I had a vivid dream of a green hill so steep that it was almost vertical. The top was out of sight. It had a white track going up it. I’ll never be able to run up that, I thought. But I suppose I could walk — or crawl, if the worst comes to the worst. And, when I woke up, I added “Or I could be carried.”
We are not alone. Even in the wilderness and the testing, there are angels ministering to us.
Catherine Fox is an author, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.