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‘With pity not with blame’

Sung Eucharist – LENT II

12 March 2006 11:00 | Fr. Dominic Fenton

From today’s Collect: ‘Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’.

Lent is a time for honesty, for a realistic assessment of the human heart; and to this season, beyond all other times and seasons of the year, we bring some of those teasing and ultimate questions which need to be faced; not the ‘How?’ questions which are best answered by science; but the ‘Why?’ questions, concerning the sense of it all. And not just the bewildered middle-of-the night questions, which haunt and disturb our sleep, but those questions which arise from our longing to love and be loved, our need to forgive and be forgiven, our desire to understand and to be understood, our yearning to be at peace with each other and within ourselves, and this goes to the very heart of who we are and of what it is to be human.

Little wonder then, that we tend to approach this season of Lent, and its call to penitence, much in the same way one awaits a visit to the dentist – with a certain sense of apprehension.

Apprehension, not only because we know that we must face difficult questions both within and about ourselves, but also because this is the season in which we have so often in the past been bludgeoned by preachers into making ourselves feel unworthy, or into manufacturing emotions that we don't naturally feel. This season for penitence and renewal so easily becomes the season for religious blackmail. Do I have to cope yet again with the emotional rigours of Holy Week, with the atonement and the empty tomb, and with its implicit accusation – that the man hanging there upon a gibbet does so because of me? And we are right to be apprehensive at that sort of demand on us.

We know only too well that ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’; yet we know too, as the philosopher Martin Buber remarked, that ‘there is nothing so hides the face of God as religion’. So we are timid of our own efforts and sceptical of ‘easy fixes’. The question therefore [and here I touch on your theme for this season of Lent]: ‘How, faced with the bright vision of God’s unfailing love, mercy and grace ­– do we both find and accept ourselves?’

That great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich said that God looks on us ‘with pity, not with blame’. And as Christians we can be too severe on ourselves as well as on other people.

As the Hymn-Writer F W Faber has it:
For the love of God is broader, than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow, by false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness, with a zeal he will not own.

And this suggests that we have to learn to accept all the potentially destructive and inadequate parts of ourselves as well as what is positive and creative; the heavenly goodness, along with the hellish badness? For in human terms, the two form a strange kind of unity.

The composer Michael Tippet, in his epic work A Child of our Time, explores this interchange between man’s light and his shadow, and has his principle character say in a phrase of haunting simplicity: ‘I would know my darkness and my light: so shall I at last be whole’. In the wilderness into which Jesus enters, he is forced to grapple with his shadow: with the dark forces of the human condition – with the temptations we all face towards the use and abuse of power and authority, or in our feeble attempts to turn stones into bread. He had no option; for the cause of Love necessitated his confronting these dark forces within himself; and only in so doing could he realistically embark on the ministry, which lay ahead. There could be no deception, no evasion: Jesus could only begin the work God had given him to do, by confronting this wilderness within himself.

And the wilderness belongs to us. As the late monk and writer Harry Williams reminds us:
‘It is always lurking somewhere, this wilderness, as part of our experience, and there are times when it seems pretty near the whole of it.’ ‘I’m not thinking now of people being ostracised or without friends, or misunderstood, or banished in this way or that from some community or other. Objectively, as a matter of fact, these things happen to very few of us. For most people’s wilderness is inside them……….the recognition of an inner isolation; the search for true communion’

Well, perhaps like me you’ve sometimes experienced this wilderness; those times of inner isolation when you’re face to face only with yourself. And sometimes we may seek to relieve such times with the consumption of sizeable quantities of gin, or with mindless chatter, or with religion, or with a combination of all of these. Yet they seem to work their magic for only a short time, leaving us after a while back where we were before. No matter how we may try, there seems to be no escape; for this facing of oneself realistically and honestly is a crucial element in our finding wholeness; a necessary part of all human experience; and that’s why it found a place in the life of Jesus, in his experience in the wilderness.

So we, who ‘have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’, could do worse this Lent, than to take a long, hard look at our own wilderness; that in penitence and faith we may find again, Him who in the wounded, crucified Christ, painfully parts the fibres of our evasion and our self-deception, to unite us more closely to himself. For, as the Prayer Book also puts it, ‘in knowledge of him standeth our eternal life’.

I end with these words from T S Eliot and East Coker:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God…..

[for] the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

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