It’s Lent again and I wonder if you’ve decided what to give up?
There’s a lot about fasting in the colour supplements just now: Postponing life? Why not shape up and detoxify now? Enhance your innate wisdom, spirituality and faith. Heighten your clarity of consciousness. Increase your happiness as you scientifically reset your body’s odometer. Get hungry – but only for the peace which passeth understanding. In the supermarket of narcissism which has all but replaced true religion, there is a bewildering variety of options: Veggies unite! Be a family that juices together. Remember you will need to take a regular enema to expel toxins. Drink plenty of fluids. I particularly like that last one: have you ever tried drinking plenty of solids?
It’s terrible: religion itself has become a branch of consumerism. People go on Lenten diets only to lose weight – thus turning a fast into yet another opportunity for self-regard. I heard two people discussing what they were going to eat on Good Friday. Have you got your piece of fish in yet? Yes, I’ve got two lovely bits of dover sole. He would have kept the spirit of the fast better if he’d opened a tin of corned beef.
Fasting, abstinence and mortification of the flesh are only any good when the aim is self-forgetfulness. And self-denial can turn into its opposite, the supreme form of self-indulgence. Two much hair shirt is likely to foster masochism. And flagellation easily turns into a fetish. When you get to Purgatory, you can ask Mr Gladstone and Algernon Charles Swinburne all about it.
But really, Lent asks us every year to make one more attempt to see God. This means to look outwards, not inwards. And we have a choice as to what we look at. The dieticians are right about one thing: you are what you eat. And if that is true physically, it is even more true aesthetically, morally and spiritually.
So let’s be very practical. Let’s use Lent to reflect on some experience that will help us see God and his purpose for us. Very practical then. No advanced spiritual exercises. No futile self-loathing – which is in any case only self-indulgence turned satanic. You’ve all got a copy of the Prayer Book. Take it out each morning and evening through Lent and read Coverdale’s magnificent version of the Psalms for the day. Here are words that will carry you into the heart of God and which will show you what he wants you to be like; which will reveal your fullness of being in every mood and motion of your life.
Just a few examples from this treasure house of rare devotion: You want to know your place in the world, what God intends for you? What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him? Answer: Thou madest him lower than the angels to crown him with glory and worship. And what is our proper response to this announcement? I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart. I will speak of all thy marvellous works.
When times of fear and anxiety come, try this: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Or the exquisitely tender Thou tellest my flittings. Put my tears into thy bottle. Are not these things noted in thy book?
Here’s vision of God for you: Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Then there’s poetic evocation of God’s natural creation as good as anything in any literature anywhere: The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar trees; yea the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. He maketh them also to skip like a calf and Sirion like a young unicorn. The valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.
Or your longing for what transcends yourself: Like as the hart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. Sensual beauty and ertoticism: All thy garments smell of myrrh, aloes and cassia: out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad. The King’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold. And a hymn for a time of war: God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved; and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.
If you are troubled by your faults, be reassured: Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies, do away mine offences. The cure for loneliness: If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. And for the point of it all, the very last line in the whole Psalter: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.
It’s Lent again. Take up the Psalms and read them.