This Lent, be self-aware not self-absorbed
Round about now in the middle of Lent, when Lenten disciplines are becoming alternately more conscious, intense struggles against resistance, or naturally habitual, and sources of frustration, pride or peace, I am almost certainly in a position to begin to understand Lent better. But the progress I feel I am making is not of prime importance.
For the psyche, there is a difference between experiencing something and my awareness of what it is I am experiencing. Lent is about learning to leave behind slavery and to be ready for a promised land because I desire something different. Hunger, silence, fear of danger or loneliness may be the experience the wilderness gives, but we need that experience to teach us that man does not live on bread alone, that those privations invite man to embrace an original truth, that he is someone who depends on a Father, a Saviour, not merely notionally, but in the concrete details of his history.
Jesus’s own 40 days in the wilderness were not primarily to prove how superior he is to the average, fallen human nature, like some irritating PE teacher who demonstrates an effortless vault to beginners. In order to be fully human Jesus had to learn how to serve the Father in his human nature and that’s what he was doing in the wilderness, which is why it is also normative for us. There he was recapitulating and learning from the experience of the Israelites. For them – and by extension for God-made-Man, and for me – the wilderness is the place of heightened awareness of the Lord’s presence. It is has neither the frenetic, unrelenting activity and arousal of slavery nor the complacency of rest. It is the transitus from slavery to rest, which is made at God’s invitation, step by step, crisis by crisis, as the soul learns ever deeper obedience, which is simply listening to the voice of God.
In those 40 years of wandering, Israel had to cast off the identity of the slave, the one who lives to work, who does not experience her own dignity. The psychological veracity of the Exodus account is striking. The Israelites leave Egypt in haste, but find it hard to trust their new Lord despite the wonders he has done. Centuries of oppression have given them an understandably defeatist outlook, and convinced them of the superiority of their old taskmasters. No sooner do they see the Egyptians following them than they are once more terrorised.
God drowns a superpower’s army in the Red Sea to save them, but after they make some headway they are nostalgic for the food they had in Egypt. They begin to forget its terrors, to think that it wasn’t so bad really. They have Stockholm Syndrome. Hostages love their captors – some of the victims of sieges have ended up marrying their captors; abused children can still be profoundly emotionally attached to their abusers.
Freedom requires that I experience myself in a new way, with a new dignity. Like the Israelites, I too crave freedom and yet do not really know how to handle it. I can be bonded to a life of sin (my own, or what sin has done to me), even though at one level I hate it and the way beyond it now lies open, the danger past. Sensually I have become used to what I experience without really being aware of what it is I am experiencing, like Israelites pleased by the fact that they have full bellies in a place where they were enslaved.
To reverse this tendency, Lent should make me self-aware, not self-absorbed. It’s not a question of how easy I am finding it to go without chocolate, but what does God want to put in that free space where chocolate was once the limit of the good I could conceive?
Am I deaf to what God wants to give me because I am clinging to my own narrow version of what it is that makes me safe, even though that safety may be slavery? Do I believe that God’s power can do something wholly new, or am I narrowly concerned lest he deprive me of the ‘‘food’’ I think makes life sweet? Am I anxious to be full, at the expense of knowing what I am full of?
If only you knew the gift you were being offered, and who is offering it, Jesus says to the woman at the well in St John’s Gospel. Only this knowledge, this voice, can free us to leave behind what enslaves us.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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