AFTER two years of a pandemic and the many restrictions on personal freedom which came with it, and as the shadow of war hangs over Europe, with who knows what future consequences, Lent arrives at a point when Christians may feel that they have had their fill of self-denial — or, at least, that the voluntary kind could be, for them, the last straw. But the disciplines of Lent are a means, not an end; and the word “discipline” points to what its end is. Lent is not about giving up chocolate, as is widely imagined. It is about discipleship.
Canon Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote about discipleship in a wartime edition of The Sign (June 1944). He quoted St Ignatius, the second-century martyr-bishop of Antioch: “Now I begin to be a disciple.” Ignatius “had long counted himself a disciple, but as he faced suffering for his Master he felt that he was now learning his discipleship for the first time.” Though most Christian lives will be different from Ignatius’s, there is a true parallel. “Again and again we find ourselves like Simon and Andrew called to ‘forsake’ in order that we may follow. . . Long years of membership in the Church of Christ seem to find us back once more in the kindergarten of Christian learning and Christian practice.”
Ramsey’s advice is twofold. First, do not be discouraged. “The way of Christian discipleship is not a straight ascent but a spiral ascent. . . Every ‘down’ is the prelude to a greater ‘up’, if Christ is really the way.” This teaches the Christian the greatness and splendour of God. Second, be alarmed at any mere repetition of the ABC. “If we find ourselves again at the beginning of discipleship and in the childhood of Christian life, it should be for us a beginning and a childhood enriched by what God has given us. . . That is the way of Christian discipleship, advancing and yet returning, mature and yet childlike, possessing much and yet doing so only by the continual realization that the greatest possessions are, before God, as nothing at all.”
As Anglicans consider what their renewed emphasis on discipleship actually means (Books), here is a corrective to pride or hopelessness, and the inertia and self-centredness of childishness, as habitual sins are faced during the penitential season; and also to the temptation to “disciple” the faithful by infantilising them or remoulding them according to some stereotype. The arrival, welcome or unwelcome, of the season of Lent matters, because spiritual growth is not to be mired in subjectivity. But it calls for discernment: that of the individual, often with the assistance of the wise parish priest, confessor, or spiritual director. A particular course or programme in which much — perhaps too much — is invested will not suit all alike; for discipleship is a response of personal freedom, and there are no restrictions on the prevenient grace of God.