Sunday, 9 March 2014

Thoughts for Lent: On Giving Up, and Taking Up

If you don't grow up with Lent, it's a pretty odd idea. Easter is coming - which ought to be a happy thing - but no, it's a penitential thing, so we give things up and become unhappy for Jesus. When I was starting out in this strange world, I couldn't think of anyone that Jesus actually wanted, in the Gospel stories, to be unhappy. He said that some would be, if they risked ended up with the worm and the fire and the gnashing of teeth, and the rich young man walked away with a long face, but I don't think that was ever his intention and object - to challenge people's complacencies, assumptions, false assurances, yes, but not to make them unhappy. There's that lovely phrase about wanting people to "have life, and have it more abundantly". It's rather a good test of how Christian the latest Synod or House of Bishops pronouncement is - "how much more abundant is this making life for everyone?"

So, I started off pretty conscious of Christian masochism, and the rather twisted way that it can speak of deprivation as sacrifice (all those lucky old paupers in the third world, without conscience-twisting choices to make about the money they don't have!), and voluntary hunger as some kind of denial of ego, when really it's just denial of the fridge and the waistline. Then one time in Cambridge I'd been preaching at an evensong, I think at Selwyn College, on the first Sunday of Lent, and Ian the Dean had invited me, and a posse of ordinands, including my friend Elizabeth from S. Giles, back for college dinner and port and such. The conversation turned to everyone's Lenten disciplines. The ordinands were particularly savage with one another about their failure to endure hunger. And Elizabeth, who had a very cruel childhood, quietly said "anyone who has actually known what it is like to be hungry, when there is nothing you can do about it, never plays with their food, and to do so in a world where so many are desperately hungry isn't pious solidarity, it's blasphemy".

Which made me think that perhaps I had been on the right track for the previous few years encouraging people to take something on in Lent, rather than giving things up (or do both, as giving things up isn't exactly time-consuming and even chaps can multi-task). An ideal combination would be to give up something that costs money, and take up giving that money to someone who needs it more - the most excellent Lenten discipline of justice. Or we could commit to making a better effort with family and friends we are always meaning to contact, but keep forgetting. But it seems that most of all, Lent is a good time for prayer.

The classic hymn for the start of the season is "Forty Days and Forty Nights", based on Jesus's fasting and temptation in the wilderness in the Synoptic Gospels. It wasn't, in his case, just before Easter, but it does seem to be presented by the Evangelists as a time of closeness to God, of a fixing and focusing of his commitment to what in the end was such an entirely costly ministry. Lent emerged in the early church as a time for new Christians to learn about the faith, in preparation for their baptism, confirmation, and admission to holy communion at Easter, and courses of study are an excellent thing at any time of year. It is instructive to learn what we don't know, both from a teacher and one another, and to discover what we have in common with others in our journey of faith, and maybe what is also distinctively our own.

But prayer, I think is underplayed. There's a lot of mystification about it, a hundred and one fatuous little books, when all that's needful is to take the time, and think of God. My view, which is not universally shared, is that everyone prays, that it's as natural as breathing, and there's no reason why we should force ourselves to be aware of it all the time, that would be rather exhausting. When someone tells you they've had bad news, when an ambulance or fire engine passes in the street, when you see a glorious dawn, or a marvellous thunderstorm, you pray, you can't help it, that's human. And it's a bit divine. You care, because God cares, you wonder and glory, because God does too, and you are made in the image and likeness of that God.

Over the years, I have found three prayers in particular helpful in Lent to remind me of a faith that can become tired and stale - especially for those of us who have been spiritually oppressed by the darkness of the winter months. They are: the Litany, the Angelus, and the Jesus Prayer, and I think I probably came across them in that order.

The Litany, from the old Book of Common Prayer, although there is a very serviceable version in the ASB (and who, knows, maybe in Common Worship too, I don't know how to use it), I like for three reasons, only one of them good. The first is that in its original form from 1544 - it was the very first formal prayer permitted for use in church in the English language - there is a petition which makes me giggle: "From the tyranny of the bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, good Lord, deliver us". I should very much like to make "Detestable Enormities" the title of my autobiography one day, and to merit it. It's worth pointing out that this clause was removed by Elizabeth I, despite the fact that one of the said bishop's enormities was to have her declared a bastard, and tell her subjects it would be no sin to kill her. Sporting old cove, Good Queen Bess! The second reason is that I used to have to sing it - during Lent - at S. Giles-in-the-Fields. This was mainly so that the season would be solidly penitential for me, and the congregation, equally, but I feel a little (and sinful) sense of pride that I, a non-singer, managed page after page of it, and sometimes even got the notes right. There were four of of them, but it's true what they say, it's all about getting them in the correct order. And the third and only good reason is that it is a prayer which, like the Church of England at its best, is both doctrinal and pastoral. It begins with the Trinity, and the key Gospel events of the life of Christ, and then lists just about everyone who could possibly need praying for. When you finish the Litany, you can be in no doubt that you have left anyone out.

The Angelus I was much more wary of. Despite coming from Italian and Irish Roman Catholic families, and being familiar with paintings and postcards of Mary, my rather dry initial researches into the Christian faith came from historical Reformation texts, where there was deep anxiety about the potential to elevate Mary to the role of a goddess. But I was persuaded by a chapter about the rosary in a little book by the late Robert Llewellyn, that the rosary is itself not a totem, but an instrument like a piano, on which any prayer can be prayed, and in the slow and gentle repetition, deepened. I even sent off to the Julian Shrine at Norwich where Fr Llewellyn served, and asked for a rosary, enclosing a cheque for a little more than quoted price, intending the extra as a donation. Almost by return, I had my rosary and a little note saying "your cheque was enough for a slightly nicer rosary than the one you asked for, so I have blessed it on the altar here, and sent it to you". The Angelus, and the Hail Mary which is part of it, seem quintessentially Roman Catholic, and yet they are a celebration of the Incarnation, just like the canticles we Anglicans use at Evensong, the Song of Mary, and the Song of Simeon: "and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". I find an affirmation in the Angelus that we, like Mary, are called to participate with God in his Providence and good purposes, and amongst those is the New Testament injunction to pray for one another - "pray for us now, and at the hour of our death". To ask someone else to pray for us is not idolatrous, and isn't about worshipping them, as angry Protestants have so often said, it is entirely natural and normal. And should the veil of death be an obstacle to such a prayer request? Tricky getting Lazarus out of the tomb otherwise. And surely Mary, the God-bearer, of all those who have gone before us, is one we can be most sure is very well-placed to pray with, and for us.

I came to the Jesus Prayer much later, and even more warily. This is odd, as I warm more to the Orthodox tradition, at least in theology (their actual churches in the Holy Land were positively tacky) than to the Roman, but the first little booklet I'd read about it was too lofty and dry to get me anywhere near it. Then I got interested in some little books by Simon Barrington-Ward, a former bishop of Coventry, and as luck would have it, living in retirement in Cambridge when I arrived to work there, and commissioned by the Bishop of Ely to minister to the university, which he did, with great gusto (I have never known a holy person with quite such an immense presence in church services, and such gentle humility in private). The text of the prayer is simple, and the first form I knew was "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner". For those who are interested in breathing during prayers, it works very well indeed, cut into a phrase for the intake of breath, and the next for the outtake. It also works very well with walking. Being pernicketty I sometimes fight with it, and shave it down further "Jesus, son of God, have mercy". And sometimes, if I have people on my heart and mind to pray for, it's pray for "us" not "me".

It seems to me that all these forms of prayer, and doubtless countless others ancient and modern, draw us not only back into our journey with God, of which it is so easy to lose sight, but remind us that we always do it in communion with others. Would that they could become a way of life! Alas, I am not the sort of disciple who can manage too much discipline, and I need this sort of waking up each year. It might be that even those more faithful types might benefit from varying their routines a little, to take longer over them, to use different words, to think and feel them in a refreshed way.

There is so very much to pray for in this broken and wonderful world that even if only for a few short weeks prayer abounds, perhaps there will be life more abundant too?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

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