Wisdom for the coming Lent

Our Archdeacon, Fr Ray Thompson, has just sent out a circular message

February 2018

My dear friends and colleagues,

Do you ever wonder why Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the devil for forty days? There is no doubt that temptation exposes us to the danger of sin, and temptation is always serious business for the Christian. At the same time, paradoxically, temptation does have a positive value in the Christian life. Temptation tests us and strengthens us in the struggle against evil. Jesus went into the desert to be tested by the devil. His human nature grew in strength and his human mind and will grew in firm purpose and dedication as he struggled with Satan. Those who have met evil face to face and have struggled with it have a spiritual toughness and resolve that endless hours of quiet prayer alone cannot give. Being tested is an important part of growing in faith, strength and conviction. A person who has never encountered the spirit of evil and has never faced opposition from others or the impulses of his or her own desires may well be a person who has not grown spiritually. Lack of exercise of our minds and wills in practicing the virtues that make us strong may leave us weak and spiritually out of shape.

In dealing with temptation we need to be careful to trust in God’s power, not in our own. Yet a life without testing is a life without strength. A prayer life without struggle is a prayer life without power. A Christian that avoids the trials and struggles of the world is a Christian who is unlikely to find Jesus as he or she attempts to walk the way of the Cross. Jesus went into the desert to be tested by Satan. Temptation is serious business. It is always dangerous. That is why Jesus taught us to pray “Lead us not into temptation.” But an over-safe and comfortable life without the struggles that strengthen and deepen the faith, the virtues and the commitments that make us Christian, is also dangerous.

Jesus began his journey to the Cross and Resurrection by meeting the devil face to face. What is the devil that needs to be faced in your life and in my life this Lent? Are there weaknesses, sins and demons in our hearts that we need to face? Jesus went into the desert for forty days to be tested and tempted by the devil. After he had faced evil honestly and squarely he embraced the rest of his life, including the Cross.

May the temptations and trials of life purify and strengthen us as we embrace the way of the Cross during the season of Lent.

With every blessing

Fr. Raymond Thompson, Archdeacon

* * *

He adds a checklist and a poignant reflection:

Fasting and Feasting – a Lent checklist

Fast from worry, and feast on divine order by trusting in God.
Fast from complaining, and feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives, and feast on positives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures, and feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility, and feast on tenderness.
Fast from bitterness, and feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern, and feast on compassion for others.
Fast from the shadows of sorrow, and feast on the sunlight of serenity.
Fast from idle gossip, and feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from judging others, and feast on the Christ within them.
Fast from apparent darkness, and feast on the reality of light.
Fast from thoughts of illness, and feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute, and feast on the phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent, and feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger, and feast on optimism.
Fast from personal anxiety, and feast on eternal truth and serenity.
Fast from discouragement, and feast on hope.
Fast from facts that depress, and feast on truths that uplift.
Fast from lethargy, and feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion, and feast on honesty.
Fast from thoughts that weaken, and feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from problems that overwhelm, and feast on prayer that underpins.

* * *

In times of severe testing one is sometimes faced with a stark reminder of what one takes for granted. I am referring to the fact that when we are healthy and fit and active, we often completely take for granted how precious a thing it is to enjoy good health and how lucky we are to be able to dash about indulging in all kinds of “busyness”. When I went into hospital eight years ago (and again a year later), little did I realise that there lay ahead of me months of enforced inactivity and recuperation. Never before had I appreciated what it means just to be able to speak. The frustration I encountered at not being able to be heard, and not having the strength to perform such small tasks as my four-year-old granddaughter could do with ease, made me realise just how fortunate we are when we are blessed with good health of body, mind and spirit. My sadness at that time at not being able to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries and preach the Word of God made the keeping of Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc., a very different experience, and led me to have a deeper appreciation of the sufferings and frustrations of those who had much more severe disabilities than mine.

For many months now I have known what it is like to experience the pain of unimaginable grief, and to be completely overwhelmed and exhausted by it. We have also been given cause for much anxiety over the fragility of health of our Father in God and Bishop Ordinary, realising how much he means to all of us and to the Diocese, the wider Church, and the cause of the Gospel. There are times when God turns things upside down, and calls us to re-evaluate our part in His plan and to see the bigger picture – a picture that may not put us at the centre of things quite as much as our egos may have led us to believe. But … there is the undeniable fact that after anguish comes resurrection.

* * *

I find this circular moving. Fr Ray speaks of his grief on losing his beloved wife, and I think many of us share this experience and pain. My own mother left this world five years ago in February 2013. Even when we believe and hope in eternal life given to us by Christ’s Mystery, it is about the hardest experience to go through other than illness and dependence on others to tend our needs. The years take their toll and spare none of us.

The message of Lent in its most profound meaning is to gain self-knowledge and self-acceptance, to fast from sin and those things that can lead to sin. The liturgy of Lent invites us to see the essential things often hidden by the distractions of material wealth, convention, bureaucracy, power over others and rationalism. We are brought to seek the light of the Transfiguration, to be free of the demons and the “Old Black Dog” that haunt us, and finally to contemplate this epic transformation of the incarnate Word passing from life, to death and to new life. Lent is initiation into a Mystery Religion, but not any old one like Mithra or Isis and Osiris, but Christ who was the perfect realisation of the prefigurations and obscure images in ancient Paganism and the Old Testament. The Church made Lent for new converts, but also to renew that catechumenate in ourselves who otherwise take everything for granted.

Each of us has now to get on our marks and run the race. The analogy of competitive sports has a limited amount of meaning, though asceticism is a question of discipline – the means whereby you are trained in orderliness, good conduct and the habit of getting the best out of yourself – as we sometimes had to copy out at school as a punishment for a minor infringement of rules (see excursus below). This is a fact that none of us can escape, the stuff of athletes, soldiers and concert pianists. The work has to be done before we can expect any return from our investment. But, it isn’t only about grittiness and gung-ho, even though we have to be resilient.

My message about Romanticism conveys something else, and not sinful self-indulgence. It is about love of beauty, nature and the channelling of our feelings of alienation and longing for the unknowable. The work Lent imposes upon us can also include writing, works of art and periods of time alone in nature, be it on land or the water (yes, sailing when the weather improves!). It can also mean the themes I have been expanding upon recently about Dr Ray Winch: academic study and education rather than bitter polemics and rudeness to others on account of their stated opinions. We humans will never understand each other – let us not make it any worse!

It is not about making life unpleasant, otherwise we will be confronted by Oscar Wilde’s rebut “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful”. What he means is the pharisaical and conventional understanding of temptation, the sweet chocolates that are naughty but nice – the very selling point of the confectionary retailer! Fr Ray’s checklist speaks of the real temptations and sins which often come from a perverted sense of virtue and self-righteousness. This work of Lent is not something to make us “respectable” and “in” with society, rationalism and status – but transparent to God, ever more conscious and sensitive to the reality beyond our material perception, yearning ever more for our true Blue Flower which is not on this earth but in heaven. If we can keep our minds focused in this way, then we might achieve something by the time we sing the Exultet before the Paschal Candle…

* * *

Excursus: the actual text of my school discipline copy, which I have just obtained from my old alumni association.

It is quite a shock to read this text with an adult understanding and the experience of life we have had. It jars the memory with the familiarity of these sentences and phrases. Does an adolescent really understand these concepts? We would copy it out and even know it by heart, but only now do we understand the establishment mentality behind it, even though much wisdom is contained therein. Young boys have to be kept in order, and it can’t be easy to get the message over whilst refraining from insulting human intelligence!

This punishment was normally administered by house monitors for minor infringements of house and school rules, typically for talking in the dormitory after lights-out or during preparation in the common room (6.30 to 8 pm). Corporal punishment was very rarely used in my day and only for serious offences like bullying and fighting. The grades of severity were as follows:

1) On special pink paper obtained from the housemaster, which involved a comment or telling-off from him concerning the breach of discipline:

  • Double Card, this definition of discipline and a list of nineteenth century history dates on the other side of the card, all copied twice;
  • Single Card, the same but copied once;
  • Double Copy, the definition of discipline only written twice;
  • Copy, the same but copied once.

2) On ordinary white paper, which meant that the matter did not have to be self-reported to the housemaster, but simply settled with the monitor concerned, the White Copy. It was normally a Single Copy without the history dates.

Here is the text of the Copy.

IMPOSITION COPY

(Copy out the passage below in your best handwriting, on paper obtained from your housemaster. Only your best writing will be accepted.)

“DISCIPLINE”

Discipline is the means whereby you are trained in orderliness, good conduct and the habit of getting the best out of yourself, all of which are essential to the well-being of the School.
Discipline may take several forms, but the crucial test of its soundness is whether it represents a real sense, on your part, of the rightness of the behaviour that is expected of you. It cannot be considered good unless it is founded upon worthy ideas of conduct that are becoming, or have become, embedded in your character.

An outward show of order can, of course, be maintained by force or fear, but mere repression is effective only while you are immediately under the authority that exercises it. When you are released from this authority, you tend to revert to other modes of behaviour, and, if discipline has not become self-discipline, you may be left at the mercy of any dominant unruly personality or of the whim of the moment.

Discipline implies the teaching of certain rules of behaviour which experience has shown are necessary for the smooth running of our corporate life, and forms an essential part of the tradition of this School.

The basis of good discipline, then, is the willing acceptance by you of the School’s standards of behaviour.

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