Is Lent your guilty pleasure?
How evangelicals rediscovered a forgotten season
We can probably thank Richard Foster for the change of atmosphere. There was a time, not long ago, when words like Lent, spirituality and spiritual direction were enough to enrage evangelicals. People spat feathers, turned red and felt that Rome's malign influence was distorting the faith and deceiving the elect.
Not so any more. When Foster's Celebration of Discipline was published in 1978 it proved to be a game changer. The author's love of the Bible, understanding of the great spiritual traditions and inclusive tone, exposed us to the many colours of the Christian faith. He introduced tens of thousands of his readers to Lent, contemplative prayer, meditation, icons, the beauty of the liturgy and the importance of the sacraments. Written from an evangelical standpoint but with a great love for the whole church, it remains the best book of its kind on Christian spirituality.
Foster's later books all share the same theme. His Streams of Living Water attempts to show how Christians of all persuasions can benefit from the Catholic, Reformed and Pentecostal streams flowing through the church.
His is not the only voice. The late Charles Colson shared a similar vision. As a former henchman to President Nixon, his dramatic conversion to Christianity is brilliantly narrated in his autobiography, Born Again. This doyen of American evangelicalism went on to found the Prison Fellowship, establishing Christian groups in prisons across the world. But Colson was passionate about the church. His love extended to all the streams, creeds and expressions of the faith, believing that the church's diversity is its great strength. He called it Classic Evangelicalism. By this he meant that the redemptive message of Jesus Christ, when preached and lived faithfully, could be recognised across the world in all denominations. A Baptist by persuasion he advocated greater familial links with Catholics, Orthodox and other more familiar bedfellows.
But this is not a modern trend. In the 17th century, an Anglican priest caught a vision of an integrated church. Such talk bordered on sedition in the England of the time. Christianity was a torn, bloodied and dysfunctional family. The established church hated the puritans; the puritans hated the Catholics and everyone loathed the Quakers. Thus it came as a surprise when Nicholas Ferrar founded a religious community in the depths of Huntingdonshire. Little Gidding was a huge experiment; an attempt to marry Anglican and Catholic spirituality. And it was an experiment that worked. Long before the word ecumenical had been invented, Ferrar and his community created a liturgy and way of life that incorporated the best of Canterbury and Rome. He attracted controversy, lost friends, but unwittingly established a place of pilgrimage for thirsty souls. Even King Charles 1 visited on at least two occasions, eager to deepen his faith.
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Ferrar's utopian dream eventually disappeared and fell into disrepair. It remained a parish church well into the last century when it arguably attracted it most influential visitor. In 1936, the poet TS Eliot paid a visit to Little Gidding. He came only once, staying overnight before returning to London. He was by now Britain's most celebrated author and intrigued by the stories he'd heard of this religious group. He chronicled his feelings and observations in a poem called Little Gidding, part of his Four Quartets collection of poems.
"...your are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity,
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid."
May you too enter the mystery of God this Lent.