Thinking about Lent now that it is over, I return to a favourite quote by Oscar Wilde as he suffered his incarceration in the 1890’s:
Reformations in morals are as meaningless and vulgar as Reformations in theology. But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.
To many people, Lent is a time for self-reformation, asceticism, working on a particular fault of character (losing one’s temper too easily for example). Historically, it is the preparation of the Catechumens for Baptism, and by extension, the preparation of the baptised for the renewal of their Christian commitment and the reconciliation of excommunicated public penitents with the Church. Often we do well to be hard on ourselves and gentle on others.
All too often, I’m not hard enough on myself during Lent, and not being in a monastery makes serious fasting and abstinence impractical. When my wife is out at work, I would often do a vegetarian lunch, or simply eat leftovers even if they contained some meat. Fish used to be a cheap substitute for the meat of birds and mammals – no longer. I find fish and shellfish a most enjoyable delicacy, and they cost serious money. Technically you can eat lobster on Good Friday and technically observe the fast and abstinence – but it would be monstrous hypocrisy! Things have changed. Even in monasteries, fasting is adapted to the kind of work a monk does, and I have been doing quite a lot of work in the garden while translating work was scarce. We have to be realistic even if there is a risk of self-justification in our complacency.
Charity and alms-giving? Money is also quite scarce, hard-earned and over-taxed, and it is more rewarding to help people in difficulty directly. My wife helps people with her legal knowledge, and she and I have a friend who needs help with many everyday things because he has psychological difficulties. It seems better to do that than fritter away precious resources for organisations and agencies we don’t know and do little more than collect money and show glossy pictures of hungry people in Africa.
Regularity with prayer and the liturgy? I have to say in all modesty that I haven’t missed a liturgical day, and have treasured the liturgical and biblical texts that guide us through the forty days. We were reminded of our mortality, but above all that the spirit is more important than the letter. Our hearts have to be in it as much as our reasoning faculties. We are reminded about human wickedness such as caused our Lord’s Passion, and meditate on it deeply, lest we should be even worse!
What was more important to me was to work on the shadowy recesses, my whole purpose in life and my vocation. Was the heart I had and have in Christianity ebbing away? It can happen when we are alone spiritually and surrounded only by non-religious friends and colleagues. I looked back at the days of before seminary and many things in life of which I am deeply ashamed and for which I have already been forgiven by God through the ministry of a priest. From being guilt-ridden, I found moments of light and intuition that I felt at the time had to be sacrificed for a deeper Christian commitment and a vocation to the priesthood. I grappled with ideas that penetrated my being as a child, as a boy of twelve or thirteen, and as a student in my late teens. I found a great amount of light when reading about the Romantics and the way they reacted to the inhumanity and madness of the French Revolution and The Machine. The man who lives with his heart and not only his head wrestles with the darkness and anguish of his Sturm und Drang, and returns to nature in a quest for strength, beauty and love. That is me, the kind of person many churchmen see as not very good material for the priesthood of team players and company men!
Indeed, Lent has its deepening and mellowing effect if we are so disposed to get down to the roots and be brutally honest with ourselves. By the time Passiontide arrives, we become heavy and tired, and tempers can fray. I remember some appalling moments at seminary when some normally calm and serene men would fly into a rage. I notice that we all become quieter on the internet in those times, no less now during this Easter Octave! Lent this year seems to have taught me more compassion, as I see where my own failings are and how badly I understood and felt my vocation as a priest. I went through the worst, whilst the TAC as I knew it crumbled around me (I know many commendable efforts are made to rebuild in England, South Africa, the USA and elsewhere) and I had only to see my own failings to know why I wasn’t Ordinariate material. I didn’t even bother to apply. I express again my gratitude to Bishop Damien Mead for having me in his Diocese in the Anglican Catholic Church.
A great theme to meditate upon through Lent is not only our mortality – we won’t live forever on this earth and we won’t take our possessions with us – but also our capacity for evil and sin. It is also a face-to-face with ourselves in our failures and loss of innocence. It is when we are faced with this reality that we can begin to rebuild with the resources we already have within us. We can’t replay our lives like winding back a tape and pressing “play” again. But, we can find many things in our secret gardens and treasure chests we thought we had lost. Failure in the Roman Catholic priestly vocation caused me to look back and discover that nothing is lost. This is why I have decided to revive my desire to compose music, reigniting it little by little with short and simple pieces, and seeing how far I can go. It goes with my sailing, another childhood dream from Swallows and Amazons and my beloved English Lake District. These things are bringing humanity and warmth back to a priestly vocation that seems so useless to others!
That is one lesson I learned in the Roman Catholic Church, which is weaker in the Anglican tradition. Not all priests are parish pastors with the cure of souls. Perhaps in earlier days, I would have liked to be a country priest with not so much to do as I wouldn’t be able to live a contemplative life. I know the reality here in France, and it is no life for a sensitive human being! The medieval Catholic tradition sees the priest as a contemplative as well as a pastor and teacher. A couple of days ago, I wrote about Don Lorenzo Perosi who spent most of his life in poor health, often in great spiritual difficulties, but who rivalled Puccini as one of the greatest Italian composers of his time. He said his Mass each day and spent several hours in prayer. Franz Liszt was not a priest but was in minor orders and presumably lived a spiritual life as a Romantic musician. Dom Odo Casel was a Benedictine monk who spent many years as a chaplain to a community of nuns. He had time to study and write his beautiful books on liturgical theology and the Christliche Kultmysterium. Some have written to me asking why I put so much into a blog rather than being “out there” as a religious salesman peddling my wares or running a parish. Many of us are useless servants, yet living our priestly vocations in a different way.
I would love to be more involved with the training of priests and education, with liturgical studies and promoting the old Sarum Use and other local rites, and above all for promoting Christian culture and art. That wish may become a reality in England as well as my life with so many people alienated from churches and priests. It is in this way that the fire can be kept alive and fuelled with God’s love.