There's been a growing trend in recent years for Christians to create art for Lent to help people in their reflection and meditation during this contemplative season of the year. Often this art focuses on Jesus in some way, especially through images of him on the cross or versions of the stations of the cross in all sorts of formats from ancient to modern. Through this art, we argue, people are encouraged to think about God. But what about those for whom there is no God, can there be something of value for them in this season?
Everyone, from children at school through to old age pensioners in their rest homes, knows that Lent is a time to give up something. Chocolate, alcohol, coffee, smoking, these have all become a familiar background to the season, whether you have anything to do with church or not.
Some years ago I approached a boutique chocolatier in Brighton who was renowned for the chocolate sculptures they created for their shop window to ask if we could work together on something with a Lent theme. Their curt response was that they weren't very fond of Christians during Lent because we all give up chocolate and weren't any use to them as customers, they'd rather focus on bunnies, chicks and eggs because that was a better market.
Abstinence and spirituality have a complicated relationship. There's a folklore around this which conjurs up images of scraggy looking monks in coarse sackcloth robes surviving on bread and water while living in a hovel with no creature comforts. This doesn't fit very well with a digital savvy culture whose biggest experience of deprivation is to be without Facebook for 24 hours. But we need to be clear that there is a difference between loss and abstinence. I choose to abstain for a purpose, but loss may be imposed on me by circumstance.
We need to explore the purpose of abstinence beyond the health benefits there may be from denying yourself your drug of choice. Is there some way to ignite a spark of spirituality in people through the simple exhortation to give up?
In church circles we talk about the purpose of self-denial during Lent being to give us space to focus more on the things of God, with the side benefit that this helps us to empathize with those who live in circumstances of deprivation in all seasons of the year. I think it would be more helpful to talk about altering our relationship with the things that rule our lives. To move away from the distorting, harmful, overbearing, or plain stressful things that make our lives more difficult than they need to be, as this can be a spiritual experience for some.
To take ourselves out of the environments that choke our creativity and imagination, even for a few moments can be supremely refreshing. To abstain from the digital tyranny of making sure we send birthday greetings to all of our Facebook friends whenever the software points this out proves that we are not ruled by it. To realize that our lives are governed by timekeeping and to actively seek some space where we are removed from the rush of daily life.
That's why we created the Lent Mirror that is currently on display in an office window in our city centre, right next to the busiest ATM in town with its permanent queue of impatient cash supplicants. The notice on the mirror says:
We are in the season of Lent, which is a time for examination and self-reflection.
Take a moment to look at yourself and think about your life.
What is important to you?
Who is important to you?
What could you do better?
How could you be better?
Make a resolution for good this Lent.
No mention of God, but an appeal to treat ourselves better, recognising that the religion of the 21st century is the deity of self and perhaps through looking after ourselves we will find something of the divine image created in us.