Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A Quaker Lent

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy
If we are to examine Lent in a meaningful way, it should be in
connection to the story from which it derives – Christ's time in
the wilderness – whether that is part of our own belief
structure or not.
For a liturgical practice that is so drawn-out, Lent has a considerable degree of penetration into minimally-observant Christian society in Britain, and even into the lives of the completely irreligious. It doesn't have TV adverts exhorting us to excessive consumption, and it doesn't have a big punchy festival, although it leads up to one. But in my experience, a simplistic conception based on the traditional Lenten Fast is still fairly pervasive in British society.
As my regular readers will be aware, I have a recurring thesis in these posts – upholding the sense of the Quaker testimony concerning times and seasons, but seeking to see what Quakers might take from them to inform personal spiritual practice. Here, I shall apply that principle once again – to Lent.
The traditional “Lenten Fast” has varied over time, and between branches of the Christian church, but for much of history has been more significant than usual observances in the western (Latin rite) church, and the various denominations the split from it during the Reformation. Expectations of actual fasting have diminished, and though some liturgies still encourage abstention from eggs, meat, and dairy, it is rarely expected. I gather than the Byzantine (Orthodox) rite still has that expectation, and slightly more, but I don't know the extent to which it is actually observed. A reduction in quantity of food consumed is still endorsed in many churches, but individual observance is naturally variable. We do retain traditions such as “Pancake Day”, “Mardi Gras” (“fat Tuesday”) and Carnevale/Carnaval (“putting away of meat”) for Shrove Tuesday (or even as a festival period for some time beforehand), that being the day before Lent begins in the west, stemming from an effort to consume foods forbidden during Lent so they do not go to waste, but its connection to Lenten observances has certainly diminished in the minds of many – and where it is known and understood, it is often seen as a historical connection, rather than a living one.
There are other elements to Lenten observances than the fast, of course. Additional prayers, charitable acts and so on. Many of these were, even historically, private observances, so it is harder to know the extent to which they are actually observed by people of different degrees of outward piety. Even for the visible elements, there are always those in every community and tradition who hold to stricter, older observances, but as a general rule the degree of privation and self-abnegation that people go through during Lent has diminished, both in terms of the degree advised by the various churches, and in the extent to which people do as much as advised by their church.
The modern observance seen among many, including observant Christians, minimally-observant Christians, nominal Christians and even non-Christians, is “giving something up for Lent”. This is often something that they consider bad for them, or for the environment, but pleasurable – chocolate, drinking, smoking, single-use plastics, or even social media. There is a certain logic, to the modern perception, flowing from abstention from meat, eggs and dairy, to giving up things that are bad for you; we now understand that these things are all bad for you, at least beyond a certain point, though they can be the most efficient way to maintain a healthy level of certain nutrients, and more recently we have come to understand that the production of these commodities is, in most cases, worse for the environment than the production of arable crops. That was not in the mind of those who came up with the Lenten fast in the first place, however. These foods were considered the most strengthening and invigorating, vital for good health but things that you could omit from your diet for a reasonable time without long-term ill effects. You would be weakened, and feel that difference, but not harmed.
The idea, after all, was to attempt to bring oneself closer to the experience of Jesus Christ in the wilderness. Jesus fasted, and faced temptation, but returned to continue his ministry. The experience could be expected to weaken him, though temptation still had no hold on him. Thus in Lent one should be weakened, and suffer privation. The modern observance certainly leaves people tempted, if they give up something that they are used to having and is readily available, but it cannot be said to be privation on the same level as the older observances (though people always found ways around the spirit of restrictions if they were inclined to do so, and had the means). However, it is what it is, and I shan't criticise people for how they choose to observe their own faith; I'm more tempted to criticise people who follow an observance as a cultural norm without religious significance, but I shall resist that temptation.
And we come to the point, in this format of post, where I explore what the heart, or underlying message, of the season could bring to Quakers, without following rote forms. What inspiration can we take, what is the meaning, and to what extent to we gain anything from following this observance as it is followed in wider society? I shall take as read the argument I have made before, concerning the balance of the testimony concerning times and seasons – you may wish to review my post concerning Halloween, and perhaps the one concerning Christmas, if you would like to see that argument in full. The essence is that, while no day is more holy or especially meaningful than any other, and thus has no liturgical significance to Quakers, the meaning that attaches to a festival or season can still be useful to us as inspiration, and observances can be worthwhile to us socially.
As I have said before, one need not subscribe to a system of belief to find meaning in its stories. A Christian can find meaning in the Ramayana, and a Hindu can find meaning in the Christmas story. So to can all of us, whether Christians or not, find meaning in the story of Christ in the Wilderness. Whether you view all of the details as literal, or some metaphorical; whether Jesus was approached by an actual diabolical entity, or was confronted by the temptation of his own heart, the idea of voluntary privation and temptation is a powerful one. Think of it just as a story, shorn of its religious connections. We have an individual of both great power and great virtue; it is not unreasonable to suppose that he might, theoretically, have used his powers to amass worldly power. He could have used his abilities to “rule the world”, at least within the scope of his society. He could have manipulated, controlled people to serve his wishes – arguably he did do so, just those wishes were for the good of all, and different use of his powers could have swayed far more people. He could have had, quite likely, his every worldly desire satisfied. He goes into the wilderness, denies himself normal levels of sustenance, and is confronted with these very temptations.
If you choose, at Lent or any other time, to engage in privation in reference to this story – and to be clear, I do not feel that people should, it is clearly a matter of individual leadings – I feel it should meet certain similarities to be of greatest effect on your contemplation and development. It should in some way weaken you, make you less capable of what you can normally do. This might mean that you undertake some task without things that normally make it more convenient, such as engaging in a hobby, like hand-crafts, without some gadget – or disabling the auto-aim or similar aids in a video game. If you can do so without risk of significant impact, you could even deliberately make your life harder at work. You could fast in a significant way, and live with hunger more of the time than usual. Hunger can be powerfully distracting, and impair our physical and cognitive capabilities, which can be a powerful experience – but please do not do so in a way that poses a significant risk of harm to yourself or others.
You should also be faced with temptation. If you are giving up chocolate, do not avoid shops or supermarket aisles with chocolate – go through them quite deliberately. It is easy to stop yourself having something you want when you avoid any contact with that item. If you give up social media, do not remove the Facebook app from your phone; turn off notifications from it, of course, but leave the app there, visible on your home screen. Know that it will be there when you use your phone for other things.
Lastly, your sacrifice, your resistance of temptation, should benefit others more than yourself. Giving up sweets may be positive for your health; it is less of a sacrifice if it is also positive for your bank balance. If your “fast” saves you money, and you don't have a genuine need for that saving, then pass it on to those who would benefit from it more crucially. If you give up some enjoyable recreation, use the time you would have spent on it doing something for the benefit of others. Thus if you give in to temptation, you are serving yourself, but if you resist, you are serving others. Similarly, while I can see value in people discussing their Lenten observance with others in certain circumstances, one should be very cautious to avoid it becoming a performative thing, a way of showing your own virtue and seeking praise.
Even if you do not engage in any privation at Lent, or in the same spirit at any other time, you can spend time thinking about this idea. What would you do, were you possessed of awesome power, be it mystical or temporal, and could use it to arrange things to your own benefit? Can you truly, confidently say that you would take for yourself very little, not improving your comfort above basic needs, but would instead use the power to benefit others? The great Quaker industrialistphilanthropists did not meet such a lofty target; while the Cadburys built an amazing worker's village, they also used that influence to impose conditions, denying their workers full choice regarding alcohol, and they kept their standard of living far above that of their workers – the heart of Woodbrooke is their old family home, after all. Challenge yourself to be honest. If you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Donald Trump, what would you do with it? How much benefit to yourself is reasonable, and how much good would you do in the world before you felt it was enough? If you had strange powers to affect the laws of nature, or to influence others, what would you do for yourself, and what would you do for the wider benefit of mankind. It is not reasonable to expect that you would derive no benefit, and ensuring your own livelihood is a responsible thing to do, but what is the limit of that?
It's something to meditate on, literally or figuratively, and a real challenge to be honest with yourself over.
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