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.



The moon is born

and a child is born,

lying among white clothes

as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but

the light from the one

is abroad in the universe

as among broken glass.

R.S. Thomas

From Experimenting with an Amen (1986). Also appears in Thomas’ Selected Poems.

Photo by Shaun>D. Used under creative commons licence.