40 Days in the Wilderness
The season of Lent has its most profound biblical resonance with the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. The prayer book encourages us to use it as a time for 'self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial'. It begins on Ash Wednesday with a reminder of our own mortality - that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
I think that introspection is in general a dangerous activity. I've heard it said that we 'shouldn't think less of ourselves, but think of ourselves less'. That's generally sound advice. For those of you prone to excessive introspection, perhaps you could give that up for Lent? Whenever you find yourself wondering about how you're doing or what people think of you - stop and choose to think of other people instead! For the rest of us, I think the balance of 40 days of introspection against 325 days of thinking of others before ourselves might be about right. So 'self-examination' is not a burden but a rather precious and rare gift that comes only once a year. A spring cleaning of the deeper cupboards of our souls; a chance to recalibrate our spiritual rhythms and practices.
The biblical word for that recalibration is repentance. Of course, to recalibrate you have to acknowedge that there's something to recalibrate. So repentance begins with a recognition of our sin and a decision to to do something different. Sin is not to be wallowed in, though. It's power has been defeated on the cross. It simply needs to be recognized in order to be left behind. The heart of repentance is not sorrow for sins, but choosing to set ourselves in a new direction - to leave unhealthy patterns behind, and through the power of the indwelling Spirit choose better ones.
The practices we are commended to engage in - of prayer, fasting and self-denial set us in the right place to engage in that process. When we have full stomachs and full lives there is no space to reflect - we just charge full ahead with the consuming and producing of day to day life. Fasting and self-denial and the space that these create for deepening our prayer life are a gift. Like the discipline of exercise there may be some short term discomfort, but the reward is nearly immediate and significant. The body that does not exercise is quickly sluggish. The soul that does not fast or practice any restraint in consuming things becomes just the same. What a joy to be able to shed some of the sluggishness through such simple practices.