jam for Ash Wednesday

The internet has been positively buzzing this week with suggestions for marking Lent. From pledging to wear only six items of clothing for the duration, through undertaking a good old-fashioned fast, to spending time outside in bare feet, it seems there is no shortage of creative ideas for anyone who wants to live more thoughtfully in the run-up to Easter.

The challenge for me has been finding something that will work as I enter a season of great busyness, with work intensifying just as my university studies also gather speed towards a couple of big assignments. Give up chocolate? Er, not very likely! Instead I’ve been looking for a way of marking Lent that ensures that the relentless pressure to meet deadlines does not crowd out everything else that is important. This is not just about dealing with stress – although that comes into it – but about something far more fundamental. The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas describes it beautifully.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

RS Thomas

This is about seeing the difference between what can never last and what is of eternal significance; between a flame in a tinder-dry bush that will burn itself out in seconds, and a sacred fire that encompasses the very presence of God (Exodus 3: 1-6).

Phew! How do we learn to do this? How do we develop ways of living that enable us to accomplish all the very many things that are put before us each day while simultaneously being alert to the times and places where God is breaking into the ordinary?  I suspect this is a lifetime’s work, but two things I have found helpful are:

  • Regularly set aside time to be still before God (I find this a real challenge)
  • Never rush

For Lent I plan to add a third, less obvious discipline. Last year, my daughter set me the challenge of taking a photograph every day. In the end I failed, although I did manage to keep it up for more than 200 of the 365 days. I learnt a lot from doing it. I learnt that when you are always looking out for pictures, you see everything in a new way. That even when you have ‘done’ the picture for the day, you carry on looking more attentively at the world around you.

So I plan to take a photograph for each of the 40 days of Lent as one small way of ensuring that I do not become consumed by the insistent urgency of work and study. I am not saying that I expect to find my own burning bush in a photograph – although I suppose anything is possible! What I am hopeful of is that the discipline of framing just one moment out of every day will help me develop an attitude of attentiveness, so that maybe, just maybe, I will be more prepared to turn aside for a miracle.

Today’s photograph is from Todmorden, where sheets of rain were sweeping through the valley all day. So I was all the more cheered by the lady who gave me some freshly made raspberry jam. I know Ash Wednesday isn’t usually celebrated with pots of jam but this, for me, was one of the most touching moments of my day: a stranger, who was already freely giving me her time, also thinking of extending this lovely gift.

Advent blog calendar

Two years ago I blogged through December in a bid to fight the winter blues and it seems I need to do the same this year too. I know what depression feels like and I’m not there yet, but I can sense it lurking on the margins. Maybe it’s the short days or the huge uni workload or, indeed, the sense of imminent financial Armageddon across the western world – whatever, I find myself wanting to cry for no reason and stay in bed rather than do things I normally enjoy.

I had coffee with a young friend of mine the other day and she told me she thought she might have a ‘depressive mindset’. Without really thinking too hard I found myself saying that I thought a tendency to depression, if kept under control, could be a creative thing. I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is always possible to keep depression at bay but I have learned through experience that noticing symptoms early and then doing something creative in response can be very therapeutic.

So on the grounds that attack is the best form of defence, I plan to blog every day during Advent: a daily post, probably pretty short, with a picture taken on that day. Seeking out things to photograph when you are feeling down is a really good way of taking your mind off the negative and noticing the good that is around us. It’s a shame that today’s picture is so crappy, though.ImageIt’s supposed to be an illustration of why I enjoy being at my uni so much. You can sit in the library and look out over the bus and railway stations as well as the much debated Park Hill Flats and I thought it would sum up the way both universities in Sheffield make a real effort to engage with the city rather than being ivory towers. My brain is seriously stretched with literary theory these days and it’s good to be reminded that there’s a real world out there, not too far away.

Finally, a huge thank you to Jacqueline whose blog always makes me smile, and who had me positively beaming today thanks to her very sweetly bestowing on me the Jennifer Avventura Reader Appreciation Award. I’m very honoured and very heartened. So thank you again, Jacqueline – and thanks for your unfailingly cheerful blog posts!