Giving up chocolate may not seem like a huge deal, but it’s a good place to start
I drive down to celebrate Mass with a contemplative community in Hampshire and all along the roadside the hedgerows are white with hawthorn. In gardens almond trees and magnolia begin to show their colours, and it is so wonderful to have the start of Lent coinciding with the arrival of spring in its delicate beauty.
This is what Lent is meant to be: a spiritual springtime when so much that that has lain dormant in our potential growth in grace is warmed into life. Lent does not signify a dour discipline we are going to impose on ourselves, but rather that grace is imperceptibly warming and fructifying the heart, tilting the axis on which it turns towards the light of the Resurrection.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not the meaning or end of this season. They are the means whereby I can best maximise the new growth of grace in the same way as the horticulturist does by pruning.
Fasting and pruning may both appear “negative” to the undisciplined eye, but it is going against the spirit of the season to think that it invites merely a more conscious awareness of growth. Jesus spent his entire public ministry doing positive things, but prepared for this by 40 days in the wilderness praying and fasting. It would be somewhat hubristic to suggest that it would have been better if he had done “something more positive” instead. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, the fully trained disciple will be like his Master.
The grace of Christ’s Paschal Mystery will be renewed in me once more when I celebrate it devoutly at Easter, and the preparation of Lent is that I might better direct my affections to Christ, not that I might increase affection for my progress. To turn towards Christ, I must turn away from self-regard and self-satisfaction.
The great Jesuit preacher Fr John Edwards used to have a powerful analogy for the activity of Lent. It is, he would say, as though you are stranded in a dense jungle without any means of your own for survival or escape. Left alone you will surely perish. However, your rescue is possible. An aircraft can be dispatched to take you to safety, but the only way it can get to you is if you clear a space in the jungle for a landing strip. That you are doing something positive is not what is saving you; what is important is the end to which that activity is directed. It is placing yourself within reach of your rescuer.
According to the first Jesuit, Ignatius, that jungle is made up of disordered affections. The disciplines of Lent are about the conversion of these affections, not their suppression, directing both my likes and loves towards God as the source of goodness, and my dislikes towards sin and attachments which keep me from giving myself to God’s salvific will. The fundamental attitude required for such a conversion, according to Ignatius, is a magnanimous soul and liberality towards the Creator.
To give up social media or chocolate for Lent may not seem like a huge deal, but to recognise that such concrete things are often how I medicate my moods (and therefore my affections and how I mask a hunger that might actually be a deeper hunger for God), is a good place to start Lent.