For Ash Wednesday and Lent

For Ash Wednesday and Lent: 

St German’s Cathedral, Isle of Man, 14 February 2018

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn

So begins one of the great modernist poems of English literature:  Ash-Wednesday by TS Eliot.  It is a story of turning from the bleakness of sterile individualism towards a relationship with God.  For the Anglo-American poet, it marked his conversion to Christianity, in the Anglican tradition.  It is a great poem, a great achievement of art and of the spirit.  It is a difficult poem, in the sense that its broad reference of meaning makes significant demands upon the reader, and it also acknowledges that conversion to God is not an easy road.  To ‘turn again’ is difficult, and that may be in our minds today as we begin Lent.

But poetry, with its words that are both ambiguous and relentless, allows us to be honest with ourselves:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again

How much easier that would be!  To pretend that time and place are constant, and just to let things remain as they are!  But that is indeed to renounce the face and the voice of God.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

There is repentance here, certainly, and a desire for mercy, but it is based upon that natural human will towards a well-meaning inertia, a listlessness that cannot step beyond itself, much as it might wish to.  So what is it that we are called to do, and how do we do it?  What might a ‘good Lent’ look like?

A ‘good Lent’ must surely be one that allows a greater understanding of Easter, and of what that says about God.  In other words, it will lead us closer to the risen Christ.  That is what our faith proclaims:  not ‘Jesus is alive’, but ‘Christ is risen’.  They are different statements, with very different meanings: ‘Jesus is alive’ may be true, but only in a figurative sense, and it says nothing about salvation.  ‘Christ is risen’ speaks powerfully of the nature of God and of salvation through the redemptive death.  We live with that truth all the time, but at the beginning of Lent we have a particular duty to define our response to it.  I must respond to what I believe God has done for me, and that response will be both spiritual and moral:  spiritual because I need to understand that I am saved, and moral because this means conversion of life. Conversion of life:  changing who I am by how I behave and how I speak to people, spelling virtue out in practice, defining character through habit …

We will fall short; of course we will.  But the great lesson is not to feel guilty, but simply profoundly grateful at being given another chance … another opportunity to ‘turn again’.  ‘May the merciful Lord grant to us room for repentance, amendment of life, the forgiveness of sins, the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, and perseverance in all good works’.  That is a prayer which priests may say on every occasion in preparation for celebrating the eucharist, and the petitions have to come in that order:  first, room for repentance, then the necessary amendment of life, with forgiveness of sins subsequent to, and dependent upon, those first two steps.  The grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit follow.  The penitent is restored.

Neither are we alone.  The journey is shared by all Christians, and indeed to some extent by all people in the sequence of challenges that is human life.  We have the saints of God throughout the centuries to pray for us, including those whose path has been much harder than ours.  Eliot’s poem of Ash Wednesday nears its conclusion with   

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Sin is taken away, but we remain dependent upon grace and prayer.

And finally, to Our Lady again,

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated 
     And let my cry come unto Thee.

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