I ASKED myself the other day: "How many Lents have you lived through?" I am not really sure of the answer, because it was only after I became a Catholic that 1 realised there is such a season, and rather later that I realised it is a time to take seriously. Even so I seem to have lived through an awful lot of Lents, some of them definitely better than others.
In the early days, there were the Doing Without Lents. I was rather a perfectionist, persevering sort of person then, and I tried hard. Not a crumb of chocolate, or whatever I was giving up, would pass my lips, and I scorned to relax on Sundays, so selfrighteous was I. But at least I felt good, and on Easter Sunday I fairly fell on my Faster eggs and indulged in an unedifying bout of gluttony. Now I wonder, was there anything remotely spiritual about all this?
Later on I hit on a reprehensible ruse. I did without the things that were making me fat. On Easter Sunday I not only felt good; I felt that I looked good. Clearly I had sunk even lower on the spiritual development scale.
Somewhere along the line, someone, a priest preaching, a confessor, a retreat-giver, or maybe all three, pointed out that for Lent, being positive was a whole lot holier than doing without. I entered into the spirit of this with my usual excessive enthusiasm: I went to daily mass and every holy hour, station of the cross and benediction going, and also looked around feverishly for neighbours to love and needy to help. It was exhausting, and hard onmy husband and children. But Easter Day was more joyful and I consurried fewer eggs.
But then there must have been another priest preaching, confessor or retreat-giver, because I got heavily into spiritual reading. The trouble with this was, I enjoyed it enormously. I also learnt a great deal and widened my horizons.
And so I felt guilty. I hadn't suffered, I hadn't sacrificed, I had enjoyed myself. Easter was better, more fulfilling. The celebrations meant something, but I was a dead loss.
I haven't mentioned the Bad Sad Lents. These were the ones where I started off full of good intentions I have always started off thus but fell, at the first hurdle, by the wayside, out of grace On Easter Day I knew I was a failure.
Just lately one of those good people I've mentioned before turned everything upside down by saying that Lent is not a time for melancholy and suffering and dwelling on sin and sorrow. Lent is a happy time. If you can believe that you can believe
anything I thought. Surely it is the time for repentance, and you can't repent without being aware of your sinfulness? And you can't be aware of your sinfulness without being plunged into misery? But when I got round to reflecting on this I understood that just as confession (better named the sacrament of reconciliation) is or should be contrary to all that has been dinned into us over the years, an experience of joy. "There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents..." So our Lenten repentance and conversion lead to joy too. The corollary to all that is: get your repentance over quick and enjoy the rest of Lent!
I am not entirely serious, because I,ent is most especially the time for meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus. It is wonderful to be forgiven, to be renewed, to walk with God, to anticipate the glory of the Resurrection.
But as in ordinary life we experience joy and sorrow in swift succession, sometimes even simultaneously, so in Lent we can be moved by Our Lord's sufferings and be at peace with an inward joy.
This year I have a new thought about Lent, perhaps one. that has come with age.
To be old is not necessarily to be sadder or wiser. Perhaps it is at times an opportunity for receiving insights. However that may be, it seems to me that one of the gravest sins I could commit this Lent has nothing to do with doing without, being positive or spiritual reading. It has everything to do with loving God and his creation.
For me it would be a sin Indeed to ignore what is happening in nature at this time of year in our land. As Hopkins said, "Nothing is so beautiful as spring". My Lenten task this year is to watch for catkins and pussy willows and the new buds on the trees, to gaze my fill at the bright blaze of daffodils, the hidden beauty of small flowers, the sparrow with a twig in its beak, to look out for lambs and for places where the air feels fresh and sweet, and to greet all these things with thankfulness and joy.
I look forward to Easter and the Resurrection of my Lord.
Anthea Dove is the author of Why Can't We Stay as Ee Are? in the Scripture for living series (Darton, Longman & Tod4I3.95)