Forty days to change for the better

The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury ANL-161103-110230001
The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury ANL-161103-110230001

The Prime Minister has given up salt and vinegar crisps for Lent. What about you? What’s the point?

It’s a Christian tradition, the 40 days of Lent, recalling the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, on an extended retreat from the world, putting himself against it, strengthening his character for the ministry and life that lay ahead.

Character strengths. What would you say yours were? The ability to resist the temptation of salt and vinegar crisps? or something more ingrained? Reliability, perhaps. Or cheerfulness. Are you a naturally hopeful person? Or truthful? I’ve heard character described as something that runs through us like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock. However much is licked or chipped off us, it’s still there. Our character.

We like people who are full of character.

It suggests all those good qualities run through us, rather than bad!It can take practice, to develop habits of the heart. Some characteristics we’re just born with. Some of us are naturally more graceful than others; for some the glass is half full; in others it never gets above empty. We do have personality traits that are given – more or less. But that’s not to say we can’t work on ourselves. We can train ourselves to be reliable, or careful and thoughtful with other people around us, for instance. To be kind and considerate, rather than always thinking about me, locked in self-absorption. Our character strengths take time and sometimes hard work to develop. I know I’m not naturally patient. I have had to learn. I need to keep learning.

Lent is a good time to practise being different. That’s why we think of taking, or giving something up.

To train ourselves, so we are able to draw out the character strengths that we need – when times are easy, and when they are not. We admire those who step up to the mark in a disaster, for instance. Those who are resilient and reliable in a crisis. They have character.

40 days. The usual time of quarantine – indeed, that’s where the word comes from. Quarantine – forty days to give ourselves a health check; to see if we need to address any bad habits we’ve got into. That selfishness that means we sit by, lazy to help when others are busy. Or whether we could be a better neighbour to that lonely person next door. Or to turn up to work before we need to, rather than just on, or behind time. All little things, that mean when it’s needed, we’re there for others.

Lent. It makes sense to use those forty days to see if we can change for the better.

If you’re needing to become more patient, perhaps jigsaw puzzles, or making a model of something would help. Which puts me in mind of a joke.

Said one man to another, in the pub one night: I’ve built a model of Mount Everest!

What, to scale? Said the other.

No, answered the first. Just to look at.

A blessed Lent to you and yours!

-- The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral