FROM THE RECTORY – Christians throughout the world are journeying through the season of Lent joined by many others who without necessarily fully accepting the Christian faith still value its disciplines and the shape that it gives to the calendar year.
Each year when Lent begins the story read in church takes us to Jesus’ 40-day period in the wilderness. It is a profound story that bears going back to year after year. During Jesus’ 3-year ministry he never again, as far as we know, took 40 days out to be alone with God, but he did have periods of withdrawal, retreating from the demands of public ministry to pray, reflect and commune with his God and Father. We do not have the information to know whether he had a particular pattern that he tried to live by, but there are enough references in the Gospels for us to be confident that at times he got up early and sought out a solitary place, at critical moments he withdrew to the hills and the evidence varies whether he went to be by himself or he took a few trusted friends with him. On a few occasions we overhear the content of his times in prayer and they are intimate and direct. The Garden of Gethsemane is a particularly significant moment when Jesus goes to a familiar place to pray taking the disciples with him; he then withdraws and takes just Peter, James and John and we then overhear his anguished prayer:
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me;
yet, not my will but yours be done.”
One of the things you learn early on in the spiritual life is that it is not without its cost for any of us!
Following the example of Jesus, Christians keep this season of Lent. Also following the example of Jesus, Christians develop a pattern of prayer that includes periods of withdrawal and retreat. I am delighted that we are planning just such a time away (a parish retreat) this autumn from Friday 18 to Sunday 20 October. It will be at St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent (founded in 1090AD) home to a community of Anglican nuns and also to Richard and Rosemary Lea (former occupants of Iffley Rectory!). The person who has agreed to lead the retreat for us is the Venerable Sheila Watson, Archdeacon of Canterbury. If you are intrigued by what this might involve there will be further articles over the coming months, a leaflet will be produced giving details and there will be an opportunity to hear from and discuss with the organisers what is being planned – pencil the date in your diary just in case you want to take this opportunity.
Finally, keep on with whatever Lenten discipline you have taken up. Lent is a surprisingly long haul! Any discipline that we have decided on needs to be sustainable for the full length of Lent. Joe Lewis expressed his deep mistrust of camels because they can go for a week without a drink! Well, Lent is 6 ½ weeks long and there’s something about that length of time that reminds us that spiritual discipline, as with taking physical exercise, is for the long haul! In an age of instant gratification this is profoundly counter-cultural.