Chris McDonnell: A place set apart – Lenten Reflection

Lent has begun and the great Paschal feast approaches. These passing days are spent in different ways by many people. Some give up something, others take on a new challenge, we might try to read a little more or set aside greater time for prayer in a busy world. Yet in the end we prepare ourselves in an individual way, we become for a few weeks a small island of experience.

Image by Chris McDonnell

We move out to the margin and silently watch the surging sea break on the sand edge, smooth stones and shale, rolled and salt washed. We take some time to be alone with the Lord, time maybe to listen. That in itself can be an immense challenge, it takes courage to face squarely who we are. Open grassland, treeless and torn by rage, empty distance beyond the fence, where sea-wail and sky-howl touch the moon-cold night. This can be an awesome place of utter loneliness where words lead back in loops unless abandonment is complete, this distant, desolate, island home.

By nature we are gregarious, enjoying the company of family and friends, the nights out, holidays, meals, as well as the day to day busyness of life. That gives rise to two different standpoints. Some long for the peace and quiet of solitude, worn to a frazzle by their style of living. Others find the experience threatening and feel uncomfortable without the buzz they have grown used to.

Maybe that is why liturgical action so often involves words and song, readings and sermons. The space between words, the silence of stillness, is lost. We can recapture that in the remoteness of an island when the dissolving darkness at the sky’s edge makes way for a thread of orange, a breeze from the ocean. After the storm, the distant tide begins to turn and you can walk the shore again. There you can find a personal place of solitude where only gulls wheel and screech, hunting for food, a place of isolation, where your voice, calling across the sand, receives no reply.

A time to listen.

In such time, we can find a place of peace. As slowly we walk the stirring sea-edge, expecting nothing, no-one calls our name.

A time to listen.

But only a very few of us can manage the time of emptiness that an island offers. Lent has to be lived through within the constraints of a daily pattern that is largely unchanged. The considered time must be found through the familiar patterns of each day. Somewhere (beyond that Island) a clock names the hour of early morning prayer. A nearby church or a local abbey gently reminds us of the time. There, only the sea swell moves ever closer. Between sunrise and evening we walk, each listening to the Word, returning to the point of our departure, between the running water and the rising land.

We live the experience, each speaking the Word, returning to our hermitage. The many silent stones we gathered listen high on the hillside of our Island, await our return.

We have all met the occasional person who manages to live their life at a gentler pace, those who have slowed down and show a greater consideration for others, those whose response to a question or comment is not rushed and ill-thought through but values the quality of the exchange. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is told by his friend that “this is a two-pipe problem”. In other words, let me think about that a bit.

Too often we are quick with our answers on matters of faith and morality when really we should look more at the options and context. We easily forget that black and white are separated by many shades of grey.

Maybe that is what Lent gives us, more time than usual to ask the difficult questions, not of others but of ourselves. And if the answers are not immediate, then we should not worry. Not all questions have answers that are obvious, but the asking of the question at least means we have considered an issue important enough to question. Our waiting patiently is our search for faith.

One of my grandsons often started a discussion with the words, “Grandad, I have a question!” Some were easy to answer, others demanded language and ideas that were beyond him at the time. Still others were unanswerable, but were important. I had to get across to him that thinking that a question needs an answer didn’t always provide one that came gift-wrapped.

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