Thought for the Week 13 March 2011
Keeping a good Lent
‘The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.’ So St John describes the world in which he lives, and our world too; a world in which the acquisition of goods is a daily possibility, in which one can see whatever one wants to see – albeit sometimes on a screen but often an air flight away – and where the self seems pre-eminent.
There are peoples and places where this is not so, but in the places where there is so much plenty around what is the Christian to do in this Lenten season? The puritan option seems to set us so far adrift from the mainstream of our society. We may not, if we are women, spend huge amounts of time painting our faces, though many do. We may not spend days shopping for clothes, though the newspapers indicate that this is a major preoccupation for many. We may not be hugely concerned with our sexual performance or that of our intimates, though again, these are matters which take up pages of the so-called quality newspapers. Mere rejection of these major preoccupations will not take us very far.
Our Lenten observance has to be rather more than mere abstinence and denial. There is an inverse pride in thinking ourselves superior to those who occupy themselves with self-absorption. Moderation is a helpful option proposed by the tradition but it needs to serve some purpose. If I am to be less absorbed about my looks, my dress or my taste buds, I need a reason. A recent experiment put into each other’s company a young girl, whose obsession with her looks extended to regular minor cosmetic surgery as well as two hours daily in front of the mirror, and a young man whose facial distortions, the result of a genetic disorder, had to be controlled by regular surgery simply so that he could see, talk and eat. They visited each other’s favourite recreational haunts, saw each other’s families and, in doing so, were first embarrassed and appalled and then recognised deeper realities about the human condition, about what really matters.
Beauty matters, physical attraction gives colour to life; but it is relative. We need to recognise that our choices about our lifestyle are often not between good things and bad things, but between competing goods. Likewise our selfishness, our sinfulness if you will, is not a matter of slight imperfections on the surface of our lives: it runs deep into our very selves. It is part of our mortality. The conduct of our lives is always a matter of better and worse. The blindingly obvious truth remains that it is love that counts. The extension of our compassion is a difficult business because, beneath appearances, there is a deep fear. Our stridency as well as our refusals and our choices conceal an inability to reach out very far from our comfort zone. To give up something in Lent should free us to reach out an inch or so further.