Lent and soul patience

South windows at St Anne’s Bowden Hill, Wiltshire (1856)

Lent started on the 6th March. I went to an Ash Wednesday service at St Anne’s Bowden Hill (Wilts), got the cross marked on my head and remembered that I am dust. This Lent, I’m putting my foreground research in the background, and committing my time to a church project for Lacock and Bowden Hill. At St. Cyriac’s, Lacock, we’ve taken down all the signs and most of the devotional material – a version of the Lenten practice to cover up all the visual prompts for worship. It’s a way of doing visual theology ‘aniconically’. It’s not that there’s no visual stuff, it’s that the visuality of emptiness or absence is part of the symbolic prompt to self-reflection and penitence. In these windows at St Anne’s, there’s no dominant iconographic programme, and the effect is of slow luminescence, meandering looking, piecemeal symbolic identification, and also reading (above the windows are engraved inscriptions, here ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not’). I see it as an invitation to slow down.

The giving of yourself to a new project, to people, to an idea, to a place – is a commitment, a yes to something you have chosen, over other no’s. That involves the path of fidelity, the dying to other options – and it’s a VERY different posture of the heart to the yes-to-everything distracted/rebounding focus of our culture’s invitations to connect and invest. We don’t really move forward by saying yes to everything because we have endless options – we move forward because we said yes to something more singular, and because we said no to other things. The saying no, the stalling/stepping sideways into life’s viscosity looks like hanging backwards, feels like hanging backwards, but it isn’t. In the grace of what time is and of who we are, there is space to recognise that fullness doesn’t need to be hinged to fixation or frenetic activity. The story of history, of wisdom, is always the story of a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back; it’s always the story of a glimpse of what you could be, and then you head off in that direction, and there are setbacks and you have dark nights of the soul and you wander around the woods and you get lost and then friends become enemies and enemies become friends, because that’s how it works (with thanks to Rob Bell…).

In a previous post, I identified constellations in/with which I work, rather than programmes. Which has the similar sense of allowable ‘drift’ in practice and attention. D’you know what though? It’s really hard. It’s hard in the pressure of our world’s emphasis on efficiency. It’s hard in the self-doubt about wasted time, about ‘indulgence’ when there are ‘better’ things to do, about who cares anyway. If it were a flight from the real, then perhaps these pressures would stick, but actually the point is to distill to a deeper reality. Lent affords the explicit naming of something we instinctively resist: namely that our natural end-point is dust. We don’t ultimately achieve things in our own self-effort, except in Christ’s promise of new life, except in love from without, except in flinging ourselves on God’s meaning and mercy beyond death. Everything we do can become a patient weaving of our heart, body, mind, and soul into this pattern we don’t yet fully see. We don’t see, that’s the point – and we can re-situate our ‘not seeing’ in the promises of Easter’s ‘being seen’. I hope what I’m doing gives itself to that possibility, to a direction of being seen by God, in amidst all the looking and reading that our parish churches (not to mention research in the humanities) invite.

Ash and dust the winter burial, Lent the spring

'40 Days and 40 Nights', 2012
’40 Days and 40 Nights’, 2012

Ash Wednesday is a day of confronting our mortality through the symbol of ashes, beginning to strip away our comforts, and embarking on the archetypal journey into the desert that is an essential part of conversion. Conversion is the process of discovering that God is always much bigger than we imagined and that our own attempts at filling our lives with things and busyness and power look so very small in comparison. The paradox of this movement is that while we are releasing our hold on all manner of things, it may feel a bit like death.

From Water, Wind, Earth and Fire, by Christine Valters Paintner (2010).

Does one think that the world is wicked, or foolish, or falling to bits, then half an hour with a bulb catalogue will cure one of all this nonsense. For it breathes a spirit of trusting hope. Are we not told that “England has succeeded in restoring her financial balance. Signs everywhere of this awakening to a New Life, greater confidence in the Future”? And thus, “inspired by that confidence we are taking steps not to be found wanting next Spring, when everything will be breathing New Life, and Nature, clad in her new and bright coloured dress, will be calling to us to rise and follow her.” So we must sprinkle bulbs all over our gardens, planting them where they fall. We are fully persuaded that it is a good, sweet, kind world, worthy of these thousands of narcissi and crocuses and tulips upon which we are advised to spend our money. … It is a greater act of faith to plant a bulb than to plant a tree. For no matter how small the young tree is, there, visibly, is the eventual form in microcosm. But with a bulb it is different. It needs a great fling of imagination to see in these wizened, colourless shapes the subtle curves of the iris reticulata or the tight locks of the hyacinth. At the time of bulb planting one most nearly approaches the state of mind of the mystic.

From Four Hedges, by Clare Leighton (1935).