Lent , a personal Reflection
Lents like Christmases come ever faster and the fast they impose is ever harder. As I’ve gotten older I find I often eat little and often and eschew the larger meals of my adolescence onwards. My pick -and-graze-lifestyle, is particularly unsuited to the rigours of a fast!
We live in times little disposed to deny ourselves our multiple petty pleasures. We have become to believe this is good for us but we carry the weight of this philosophy of consumption on our hips no matter how smart our lips make it sound. In the age of Twitter, FB, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram we share by making the record of the trivial of our passing days from meal to meal and purchase to purchase, party to party, into both a form of communication and a form of art. This form of sharing bestows a flattering light on the petty interiority of our small lives.
The Enlightenment philosophers first identified the pursuit of happiness as one of the Rights of Man. We have interpreted their reasoning as a notion that satisfaction of our immediate desires leads to personal fulfilment. Ever inventive, we made this convenient nostrum the subject of scientific consideration: modern economics has been used to ratify these supposed ideals of secular philosophy and technology by systematising the means of production has made possible our most impossible dreams.
The “we“, in this case, are those born into the nations that gained most from the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. For much of the last century it was fashionable to argue that nations of Europe who most benefited and enjoyed the greatest freedoms were the “Protestant” nations. Then it was also the intellectual fashion to see the English Civil War as a product of a bourgeois revolution. However, for whatever speculative cause, it is certainly true that we lucky few born in the right place at the right time have filled every shopping trolley we can with the objects of this singular passion.
Even now when we have so disproportionately much of all there is in the world, our appetite to have and to hold more does not diminish, rather it increases until we are made slaves of its endless chase. We measure ourselves by possessing the objects of our desire and others by their conspicuous consumption and reserve our pity for those who do not share this bounty.
In all of these things I am no better than any one of us. I am a child of my times as heedless of consequences of my actions as any, save when waxing lyrical over a bottle or two of red wine about the ills of society and the dangers of our exploitation of the world and those who populate it.
The only voice we really pay attention to it that small voice that counsels us to do as we please; that consoles us that there will be no possible harm to anyone in us enjoying ourselves – even to excess. The road to the hangover is paved with good intentions that one glass more will be fine. There are even more dangerous roads on which to travel and I have been a journeyman on enough of them to know how easily one gets totally lost.
As with ourselves, so with the world we oversee. Climate change is a product of that reckless side of our natures. The inequity of real opportunity deprives ambitions of the many and stifles aspiration whilst poverty of aspiration crushes every hope and the grinding poverty of the relatively fewer still undermines the value of every individual. From within our affluent bubble the poor become feckless in our eyes and the unfortunate are a burden.
Lent stands each year as a moment to give us pause. It stands for giving up things – fast – for giving things away – alms – and giving ourselves over to reflection – prayer. Of course, for me as a Christian these stand as sentinels of another series of interlocking and defining relationships: that with my body which is too often my master; that with my neighbour whose needs I too readily overlook; and to my God, to whom I pay too little heed.
All my life my heart has ached for another kind of love to that which I’ve enjoyed. My head knows where it lies and understands it will alone bring me the happiness I seek, but I still seek to keep God safely at a distance from my daily life. He is a bit like a slightly embarrassing friend you don’t really want to admit to your other cooler friends you really like, let alone dare to introduce to them. The good opinion of others often keeps us from being true to ourselves. It hardly says very much of me that I act as if I am ashamed of the most important relationship I have.
Yet, until something goes badly wrong that is rather how I treat God and my religious faith. Naturally, once something goes wrong – and how often has that happened in my life – He is the One to whom I then turn to fix things rather as a child turns to an adult with a broken toy. It does not speak well of me that after all these years I still seek to run with the spiritual hare whilst still hunting with the hounds of hell.
So, this Lent offers me another chance to try to get things right.
We fast not to make ourselves appear better to the world but to free us from the tyranny of feeding our destructive appetites. We give alms to remind us that we are not the centre of our own world let alone of the world where our fellows go hungry and sleep out in the streets and where we too readily turn a blind eye. And we pray to be better people because, despite the whirling dervish our of busy days we all know we actually do not own any tomorrow and that for us the tomorrow on which we count to put right the wrongs of our today, may never come but may become our day of judgement.
Mainly my best friends are easy with the social gospel of Christianity. They too believe care of our neighbour is at life’s heart. I understand some are distinctly uneasy with what they see as the obligations of the religious faith which I have embraced. Some few may even be more hostile than uneasy. I know my religious conversion disturbs and disquiets. Perhaps some feel I have betrayed a nobler cause of political action or I have become a traitor to the causes of LGTBQ peoples by peddling my Catholic beliefs on Social Media. I think human rights and the causes for which I fought in the past were worth the effort. Fighting for equal rights before secular law is an important part of securing the dignity of each of us. The epidemic we call AIDS saw partners deprived of their homes and tokens of a shared live after enduring terrible personal loss and after the trauma of nursing a dying lover to his end. I am glad I fought to change that. I am very glad that has been changed.
That said, whilst the social gospel may look to the better angels of human nature, the human condition is in my view always inadequate of itself truly to transform life for the better. Noble ends forever exchange principles with ignoble means. The best laid plans for supporting our fellow man in his distress either by interventions by the state better to share our wealth and resources or through personal giving or by a combination of the two, are always worthwhile of themselves but are doomed also never to meet the need. Moreover, in endeavouring to meet need simply on these materialistic terms we tend to treat the profoundest need – above all our shared need to be loved for and valued for ourselves – even if others find us unlovable – as simply material transactions. Ultimately that response will always be inadequate to meet the true dignity of every man and woman. That relative good is a good and worthy of pursuit but before we change the world, we first must change ourselves.
That is why in the end what we believe matters greatly. If it didn’t, would humankind have slaughtered so many of our fellows because of what they believe? By the way, that impulse is not the prerogative of the religious for those with no religion are as tainted by this vice of nihilist absolutism. Our capacity to make bad from good; to hate when we might love; lies at the heart of our personal and collective dilemma.
Lent reminds that it is never too late to start over. If it does no more in doing that is does us a great service, whether or not we share the same religious convictions.
But those who believe the fiats of the state and the executive orders of the mighty or the platitudes of the nice, are all we need to do forever to change the world are terribly mistaken. The world plays by its own rules; it is always willing to pass by on the other side – albeit with a fair bit of rubber-necking and tut-tutting.
However, for each of us there is a personal epiphany that rewards our soul searching and heals our sorrow. I would not impose my epiphany of anyone. Yet, I have travelled too far to say all answers by all of goodwill are equal. They’re not; and pretending they are is another form of intellectual dishonesty. I want to set aside the pretence because time is now so short. If that makes my friends fewer then so be it. I must learn to live with that because I live with a heart that is full of joy and love from God who as the poet has it is our home.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home….” William Wordsworth Ode on Intimations of Immortality