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Living Through Lent

By Rev’d Phil Wales, Distinctive Deacon

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote:

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee

It was my former English teacher, Mrs Corcoran, who introduced me to this well-known piece many years ago. Meditation XVII, from which these lines are taken, is part of Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Conditions written in 1623. Donne, who at that time was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, had typhus and was close to death. As he recuperated he wrote a spiritual meditation on his condition throughout each of the 23 days of his recovery. These few short lines speak directly to the truth of our universal connection with, and mutual dependence on, one another. Donne’s heightened awareness of the precious fragility of his life reminds us of the joy, pain, and vulnerability of being a member of our global human family.

On Tuesday evening, one day before Lent, a vigil took place at Exeter Cathedral. We gathered in silent prayer and solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Our collective rejection of evil and trust in God were palpable. For Christians, Lent is a time of spiritual preparation before we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over death at Easter. During these 40 days we journey with Jesus into the wilderness to discover not, in fact, how strong those who rejected him were but the opposite; to see how God revealed to the world then, now and for all time how those forces will, in the end, never prevail.

Through Lent we encourage one another to set aside time to nurture our relationship with God and deepen our faith through prayer, contemplation, and action. But, of course, knowing what Lent is and choosing to observe it are quite different. And being aware of what is to come, the joy of Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost could lead us to try and put our spiritual lives on fast forward rather than stay with Jesus throughout Lent.

During a recent conversation I was asked: “What does Lent mean to you?”. I have been asked it many times before of course, as many of us will have done. Pondering it this time had a double effect. I became all too painfully aware, in that moment, of how my preparations, had become reassuringly familiar, even safe. And I became aware too of how I felt drawn to answer a slightly different question, which hadn’t been voiced, but had been asked nonetheless: “What will this Lent mean to you?”.

Put this way, the question breaks through our tendency to insulate ourselves from the world as it is now in which we are called to live out our faith. God continually invites us, prompts us, to know him more, to trust in him and to reject evil in all its forms. We are, as Donne wrote, inextricably bound together and “involved in mankind” however much some may choose to live as though this were not so.