Bare

I love the fine adornments of Christianity. Or of the way I choose to practice my Christianity.

Perhaps that isn’t something I should admit to.

Perhaps you would think more of me if I said that I were above all that.

But if you have seen the satisfaction I take in the weight of a thurible in my hands, my childlike delight at the swirling rose petals of Corpus Christi, my joy in the rich music and trumpeting organs, my pleasure in the changing colours of the liturgical year, or even my penchant for getting Bishops to sit in fairy-light strewn thrones, you will know that I speak the truth.

“I don’t like Lent,” my mum said when I was a child (and again many times since I’ve been an adult). “I don’t like how the church is when it’s all stripped and there are no flowers.”

So you will know too that at least I come by it honestly.

Of my love for the sparkle, for the shine, for the holy razzmatazz of the way I choose to worship and all the ephemera that comes with it.

For ephemera is what it is.

The swirling incense will be lost in a scent memory, the rose petals will wilt and fade, the notes from the trumpeting organ will die away, the colours will change and change and change again, and the fairy lights… well, we all know what happens to fairy lights.

As all of that is lost to time and space, what is it that remains with us?

Lent is not a comfortable season for me. But is it a comfortable season for anyone? For is not Lent about looking down into our very bones, into our very souls, and learning whether we can live with what we see there when all the rest is stripped away? If the ephemera is gone, what have we got left?

Those do not strike me as questions that are supposed to be comfortable.

At dinner with some friends this week, the conversation turned to what we learn about ourselves we are forced through circumstance to live without all the fuss and the fancy of our usual daily lives. Two had just returned from a year working in East Africa, away from first-world preoccupations. Another spoke of a solitary walk she had been on, more than five hundred miles, separated for weeks from the privileges and the inconveniences of what we consider normality. In that conversation, there are memories of people the world over, of pilgrimages and of spiritual retreat and, yes, of Jesus Christ in the desert too.

If people talk of finding themselves, we tend to snort a bit. It’s all a bit New Age and buzz word and surely worthy of an eye roll or two. But is it not what we do? We go on these journeys, to the ends of the earth or simply to the depth of our own psyche. And we come back and we are never ever the same.

Lent is not a comfortable season, but Lent is when we find out who we are.

From the crumble of ash on a forehead to the touch of lips on the bare wood of a cross to the empty cavernous space that once was filled with light and life and laughter.

If we take away all the rest, who are we?

Who do we want to become?

burning gold

Salvation takes risks.

Miriam had learned that the day she built Moseh his very own ark and send him down river, whispering prayers to God. God had favoured her then, and the Princess too: ‘Shall I get you a nursemaid for you? Can we help you raise your new son?’ The princess had arched her brow and looked straight into Miriam’s heart and said, ‘yes: bring him a nursemaid.’

And so it began: the years at the palace. Miriam watched the Pharaoh’s daughters as carefully as she watched the dragonflies. She leaned when to laugh and when to remain silent; when to fuss over them, and when to disappear. Miriam wrapped herself in deference as a cloak, and tossed it off again just as soon as she could.

Once Mosheh grew, Miriam left. She preferred freedom to palaces, and the wild God of the reedbed to the Pharoah’s restraining ways. Her brother might seem to be the princess’ son, but she knew better — and she would make sure he knew better too.

Salvation took risks. So Miriam waited as Mosheh grew.

Finally, the day came. She saw Mosheh walking by the river alone and she ran after him.  It had been years since they’d met this way — and she greeted him with the memories ofchildhood.

‘Look Mosheh! God comes to his people. Look, Mosheh! The reeds burn gold!’

Mosheh spun at her words, caught between delight and confusion. He was never sure how to read her — was she mocking him, or praising him? Inviting him to share her joy, or chastising him for not being there more often? Still he was glad for her. Miriam: mistress of dragonflies, watcher of radiance. Sister and wisdom and friend.

‘And what do you see today, sister? What has God been showing you now?’
‘Come with me.’

This was an old game. She’d lead him through the reed bed, down paths only she knew. She would show him a deer, a fish, a nest of fragile eggs. But today, she surprised him. She hitched her skirts and ran away from the river. Back to the town, down through the streets, further and further from the palace to places he had never seen.

‘Miriam, wait!’ but he could never catch her. She was wild and he was used to comfort. ‘Where are we going, sister?  What have you seen?’

To see our people, she whispered.  To show you our God. But he could not hear.

She ran and ran till the streets were no more. She ran through the wastelands to the very crest of the hill. And there she waited for Mosheh to reach her. For Moseh to see what she saw.

Mosheh had heard of the brick-makers, of course. He knew that it was what his people did. But he had not known what that meant till he stood beside his sister and watched men binding mud with tears; men building bricks with blood.

They stood for a long time watching. The labour, the cruelty, the despair. Hundreds of men being broken; thousands of bricks in the sun.

‘Look, Mosheh. God comes to his people. Look Mosheh. The reeds burn gold.’

Remembering

I remember my first Lent like it was yesterday. I was 27 when I first joined the Church and had only distant memories of a large grey building at Granny’s where pandrops were dispensed from fur coat pockets and boxed pews kept you firmly ensconced. The joy and riot of colour and drama and smells and sounds of the Episcopal Church were shocking to me, but also familiar. Not familiar in church terms, but made me feel like I was at home. As each season passed I knew that this was where I wanted to stay. This was where I belonged.

And so my first Lent came to pass. I walked in to church and gasped at the beauty and delight of the purpleness. The altar frontal, the burse and veil, the flashes of it around the building, the lack of flowers, the starkness all set the scene. Then there were these unfamiliar Anglican hymns but there was something more. I’m not a musician but even I could tell that the tone was different, the tempo was slower, the words were more poignant. I think it was then that I first realised that hymns were chosen to fit the season, to fit the liturgy and how important that was. The notices told me that Confession was available, something which I had previously thought of as strictly for the Roman Catholics, but then I realised that this was all part of the season of preparation.  To turn from sin and seek repentance. To cleanse and purify our hearts. To rouse us to prayer, self-denial and service of neighbour.

I’d never given anything up for Lent before. Of course I’d heard people talk about it – usually chocolate, cigarettes or booze – but I’d never made that kind of commitment before. But I also heard the gospel say that we shouldn’t talk about it, that it should be done in secret with God alone, and that we should oil our faces and keep cheerful. That’s what I heard, that first Lent. But I felt unprepared. I hadn’t had enough time to think about it, to plan it. But I really wanted to take it seriously, to make a promise to God and to keep it. To do something as a sacrifice that would make me a better person because I still didn’t really believe that God loved me as I was.

Nothing prepared me for the powerfulness of that first Ash Wednesday service. Nor for the emotion that would well up when the priest said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and turn to Christ.” Tears sprung to my eyes and I really didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the seriousness of it. Perhaps it was the touch on my forehead and the sign of the cross, so recently given to me in oil at my Confirmation. Perhaps it was the purpleness, the solemnity, the music – who knows? All I knew as I walked away from the altar rail and saw that Mr W also had an ash cross, as did Mrs L and Mrs R and all the rest, all much better Christians than I, all who were much further along this path with God, all were marked with the same cross and all reminded of their mortality and the need for repentance. All of us there that night were in it together. And that each year they came back to be reminded again.

I’ll never forget that first Lent. As the drama unfolded over the weeks I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was like finding a favourite series on TV when you can’t wait for the next episode. The following year I thought I would be better prepared and asked in the pub after church one Sunday if there was a book anyone could recommend which would tell me what it all meant. “Yes, there is,” said someone, and I whipped out my filofax to write down its title, “its called the Bible!”

Ever since then I’ve never lost the thrill of the change of seasons in Church and in particular the journey and drama of Lent. Since ordination I’ve wanted every single one of my little flocks to gasp as they walk into church when the seasons change and feel the drama unfold in words and symbols. The signs and symbols work best for me. I know that now. For some its the words and I’ve tried to work with them too. I don’t give up so much these days as try to take something on. I’m afraid there is little sacrifice in saying Morning Prayer with others but I always do that in church each Lent and Advent. But whatever I do, there is nothing that quite compares with that first Lent.

Into the Wilderness

Today I need the wilderness.

I woke too early, with too little sleep, my eyes swollen nearly shut. I don’t know what set my allergies off again; it frustrates me. After breakfast I dozed on the couch until the senile dog set up a flurry of mad barking, at nothing, and I jumped up. Laundry. There’s always laundry to do on Mondays. I am tired of the dog and the laundry, of writing my novel and not writing my novel, of all the work I have to do, and of the fact that if I chose I could ignore it for another day. It’s hard to feel anything matters much, today.

Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.

What happens in our wilderness? This weekend my husband watched a survival show, in which contestants were sent naked into the Panamanian rain forest for twenty-one days. He didn’t tell me why they did it. I assume there must have been a prize.

Our prize is the Resurrection. It’s a pretty big one. On days like today, my grumpy self has trouble even imagining it: the gates of Heaven flung open in welcome to sinners, to me and to everyone else. An atheist friend once asked me, curiously, “So, your God requires that you not eat meat on certain Fridays? And that you give up playing computer games until Easter?”

“It’s not required,” I replied. “It’s discipline.”

“Ah,” she said. “Why?”

Because, like me today, we tend to get caught up in ourselves, in our tiredness, our work, our laundry. We attach too much importance to things that don’t matter. If we can brave the wilderness, if we can strip our souls bare, we can begin to remember what we need to survive. Exactly what, and no more.

dragonfly

Carefully, she picked her way through the reeds. At last she had learned; at last her mother believed she had learned. At last, she was allowed to go down to the river on her own.

What her mother didn’t know was that she had become very good at finding dry land. Where others stayed by the banks, Miriam explored the channels. She’d realised that if you watched where the water was still and where it rippled, where the reeds were bent and where they danced, the paths went well out into the water. There was dry land everywhere, if only you knew where to look. And Miriam had found it.

She pushed her way into a clearing and thanked the deer who had slept there. If she settled right on the edge, she could dip her toes in the water and not be seen. She smoothed her skirts and took the ribbon from her pocket. The ribbon was her most prized possession. Another secret. She had found it one day, caught in the reed bed, lost by a careless princess. It was dyed with azure and woven with gold, and she had never seen anything so beautiful.  But more importantly, the dragonflies loved it. Miriam had learned that if she was very patient and let the bright ribbon trail across her tan skirts, blue would be drawn to blue. The dragonflies would rest on her lap, and she would feel richer than any queen.

Miriam stared at the water and watched them dart back and forth. She loved it here — dragonflies and sunbirds, deer and frogs. She imagined the reed bed was an ark, and all the animals were hers.

The ark. Now there was a troublesome story. She had been told it all her days as a sign of God’s goodness, but she wasn’t sure. If there were to be a great flood, then she liked the thought that God would take time to make sure the animals were safe. But if God sent the flood, then that was another matter all together.

‘What about you, little one? Were you on the ark?’ She whispered to the dragonfly who had at last settled on her skirts. She barely breathed lest she disturb him, but she asked again: ‘did you sit Naamah’s knee, or did you find your own way through the waters?’

For this was her newest theory. Some of the animals were indeed kept safe on the ark. Burrowing creatures, and grazers who were particularly vulnerable to flood. Voles and fox, cats and dogs, deer and milk-yielding goats. But some — like Miriam herself — would have known were the paths were, and ran fast to dry land.  And others — like her dragonfly — could find their own means of escape. God did not need to trap everyone in a boat.  God would let each one find their own way, and the ark was there for those who needed help and safety. 

‘I wish I had an ark for Moseh,’ she thought, and she began plaiting reeds.