I’m starting this blog on Ash Wednesday. Today we went to the Dominican Priory in central Oxford for the service of ashing. I’m still trying to figure out why it was such a meaningful service. I came away feeling I had been fed. I don’t think it was just the brief sermon, though that was helpful. Ashes in Scripture, said the celebrant, stand to some extent for penitence, but much more for mourning. What do mourning and penitence have in common? They both direct us to what really matters in life. ‘You are dust, and to dust you will return.’ It was grounding, but not depressing, to think during that service about being mortal.
Last night I met with two very different people for a time of lectio divina and contemplative prayer. We read Romans chapter 11, verses 1 to 6, together, each taking a verse and sharing what it said to us. What struck me was how easy it is for even a gifted prophet, as Elijah was, to become bitter, self-righteous, and perhaps even a bit paranoid, in times of national and international conflict. How like us! The Lord gently tells him that there are lots of people with their hearts in the right place. You are not alone (so don’t be so harsh and judgemental); you are not alone (so don’t be so fearful and anxious). The prophet’s mood contrasts sharply with the unchangeable gentleness of God: there’s a remnant chosen by grace. I did like that: it could have said ‘chosen by God’, which would have been correct, but somehow less easy to warm to. Grace, which of course is only God under another guise, does the choosing and calling, but it’s largely hidden and secret, known just to God.
I wrote in my last blog about the dangers of secretiveness in the church. But there is of course a good kind of secrecy. We had it today in the Ash Wednesday Gospel. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret’ (or, as some wit once said ‘so that your arms may be in secret’). ‘When you fast, wash your face.’ ‘So that your father who sees in secret may reward you.’ This is the same gentle Father who spoke to Elijah about Grace. The church hasn’t always learnt this lesson. Even while it covers up its shortcomings, it often goes in for the sensational, or at least yearns for publicity and enlists PR people to promote its image. Don’t we all long for spectacular salvation stories that will convert many? But ‘if they don’t listen to Moses, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.’ A very good Lenten discipline would be to give up our desire for grand Christian publicity and resist the temptation to seek impressive religious PR. And, on the positive side, to bank much more on the workings of Grace.
What has this to do with writing? Two things, I think. One is that we should try never to write the way Elijah might have at his moment of crisis, in a critical, captious, harsh, or even self-righteous spirit. Our audience, and our created characters, should be handled with gentleness and grace, even when they are actors in contexts of evil. The other point is that there is a good way as well as a bad way to ‘hide’ the gospel in our writing. Most people agree that to sneak it in and preach covertly is not good. But it can justly be hidden there in the same way that our good deeds are done in secret, the way that the kingdom is hidden in the world—the way that the leaven is hidden in the dough, invisible in itself, yet suffusing the whole. Which is to say much the same as the first point: grace must lie at the heart of it all.