20 February 2021
Evening reflections and
prayers in Lent with
the Unitarian Church Cork
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
These are the opening words of TS Eliot’s poem ‘Ash Wednesday,’ a long poem written in 1927 after his conversion to Anglicanism, and published in 1930.
It is a poem that, despite its length, I have often used as a Lenten reflection, or instead of preaching a sermon on Ash Wednesday.
Lent lasts for 40 days – the Sundays do not count – and many of us associate it with long faces and dour attitudes in the past, when people ‘gave up’ some of life’s pleasures: sweets as children, drink or cigarettes for adults, or sugar in your tea, if you were already a non-smoker and a non-drinker.
People of my age have dim memories of Lent in the past in rural Ireland, when there were no dances and no weddings.
But Lent is not meant to be a sad and doleful time, still less a time for superstition or for self-punishment. It is an Old English word that hints at length, the lengthening of the days: the days are getting longer, Spring is arriving, and we face sunnier days with the promise of summer to come.
In the Early Church, it was a time for preparation. People who wanted to convert to Christianity, were taught not just through verbal instruction but through practical actions: not just fasting but also giving to the poor and to orphans … visiting prisoners and those who were sick in bed.
Fasting itself is not only a Christian tradition, but is a form of spiritual discipline found in all the great religious traditions: think of Yom Kippur, the great Jewish fast, or of Ramadan, a whole month of fasting for Muslims.
Let me read part of the Gospel reading associated with Lent, which records Christ’s words about fasting:
[Jesus said:] ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you ... But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you pray … go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (See Matthew 6: 16).
In Anglicanism, the traditional Lenten Collect prays:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For many, TS Eliot bridges the gap between Anglicanism and Unitarianism. Let me conclude this evening with some more verses from the opening of ‘Ash Wednesday,’ the poem he wrote on his conversion to Anglicanism:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
This reflection was prepared for a series of evening reflections in the Unitarian Church Cork, and was posted on Facebook and YouTube on Friday 19 February 2021.