Last Wednesday, about 9.45 p.m., Father Gareth said, “Isn’t it strange how, on the day when you can’t have something, you want it all the more?” It was Ash Wednesday, a day of fast and abstinence, and Father Gareth had taken a sudden and strong notion for a slice of beef, a lamb shank, a chicken leg, or perhaps all three. He was right of course, we are never so hungry as on a fast day, no sooner do we begin to deprive ourselves of something than our longing for it grows stronger. Such is the way of temptation, and Lent had only just begun.
Earlier that day we had big crowds at each of the three Masses in the church as people came forward to be signed with ashes, and also a big number of people who came for ashes throughout the day, who were unable to attend any of the Masses. We also had a very nice service in the City of Glasgow College which was conducted by Brother Antony, as college chaplain, and I provided a bit of music. It was obviously appreciated by the students and staff who came, and I thought that the witness of the students and staff walking around the college for the rest of the day, with their ashes on their foreheads, was quite significant.
My most memorable experience of Lent was back in 1987 when I made a 30-day silent retreat at Manresa House in Dublin, named after the cave where, according to tradition, Saint Ignatius of Loyola shut himself up to pray and do penance from March 1522 to February 1523, and during which he wrote the Spiritual Exercises which formed the basis of my retreat. At the time I was doing a year-long formation course in preparation for working with our students and novices, and the retreat was part of the course.
There were 30 of us on the course from various Religious Orders, 20 women and 10 men, representing 15 different countries and cultures throughout the world. It had been a wonderful experience and the 30-day retreat came towards the end of the course. Because of the nature of the various elements of our programme, we had come to know each other very well, warts and all, and there had developed a great spirit of friendship and support among us. There had, of course, been occasional moments of humour to break the intensity as when, in the middle of our first group dynamic session, during which nobody had spoken, the silence was broken when a Sister from Pakistan, who had a bit of a tickly cough, asked the facilitator, “Do you mind if I take a tablet?”, to which he answered not a word. At the end of the session he left the room, again without speaking, and we all turned to this Sister and asked why she had made such a strange request as, with her broken English, we had, every single one of us, thought she had said, “Do you mind if I take up the carpet?” We laughed till we cried.
But, much as we had come to know each other well throughout the course in all the talking and sharing, I would say that we came to know each other even better in the quiet and the stillness of the 30-day silent retreat. We became very attuned to each other whether it was in the chapel quietly praying, or sitting at table sharing a meal with gentle music playing in the background, or just noticing each other walking in the grounds, or in the park next to the Retreat House, or on the long stretch of beach on the opposite side of the road. We seemed to intimately connect with each other’s moments of joy and sorrow, struggle and pain, without ever saying a word, because no words were needed. And God was palpably present in the silence as we moved towards a joyful celebration of Holy Week and Easter at the end of it all.
This Lent has begun on St. Valentine’s Day, and it will take us through to Easter Sunday, which is April Fools’ Day. St. Paul says, we are fools for Christ, but then he goes on to say, but we are so wise in Christ. So, we can acknowledge a certain foolishness, a touch of madness, that is built in to our believing in, and following of Christ, but we also celebrate its wisdom. Again, as St. Paul says: The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom and power of God. Happy Lent!