Lent One: The walls that contain us.

Well Lent has begun.  40 days of fasting of sackcloth and ashes.  Are we enjoying it? – don’t answer that, I really don’t want to know!!  For those who have given something up for Lent this year, you’ve had four days already since Ash Wednesday, so 36 to go and remember that Sundays don’t count.  Shouldn’t say that should I?   Personally that seems a little bit like cheating, especially if you have become vegetarian during Lent, with Sundays not counting – nice roast dinner. hmmmm…  not looking in any particular direction…

Films are always for me an endless source of inspiration, especially for times of the year like Lent and this year is no exception.  This film is one which I first watched at university.   I remember going into our common room in the University Chaplaincy, the chaplain at the time – John, sat us down, (we were all very dutiful students in those days) and he said ‘now watch this’, then turned to us and said:  Here begins my lent course.  We all sat back in horror: Oh no, what is he putting on?  Well it was the Film “The Shawshank Redemption” I’d never seen it.  It isn’t the sort of film I would suggest you go out and watch for a good evening with the family.  It’s not a family film at all.  It is though, full of hope, it is full of wonder at life and it is full of well, rather a lot of swearing and darkness and prison life, the worst of prison life in places.  But there is underneath it all a sense of there being something wonderful at the end.  Something to be hoped for, to be looked towards.  It’s one of those films where you rather hope everything’s going to turn out all right, but during it, you really don’t know.  It is so terrible in places.  It has you thinking hope against hope that perhaps something wonderful could happen at the end of this.  How could this possibly turn out well when you’re about half way through or 3/4 of the way through the film?  Watching there, sat in that common room, never having seen it before we were on the edge of the seat because the tension that the films builds up is unbelievable.  It’s narrated by Morgan Freeman who also takes one of the lead roles.  If you know his work, he has that wonderful quiet way about his voice in a lot of the things he does.  And he talks pretty much all the way through the film as a narration.  It draws you into what is going on.  Yet it is not the sort of film for the family or the faint hearted it is 18 certificate.  We meet one of the characters near the beginning.  His name is Red played by Morgan Freeman.  We meet him as he’s, as they call it, ‘up for parole rejection’  He’s not expecting to get Parole, he’s expecting to get rejected.  We think 40 days of lent is long, he’s been in prison 20 years.  He approaches the bench, sits and is asked, ‘have you been rehabilitated?’  ‘Yes, yes I’ve been rehabilitated I’m a changed man, no threat to society here’ he replies.  Nothing wrong with me now I’ve learned my lesson.  Prison has worked it’s been wonderful, thank you very much, can I go now?  And they stamp his form ‘rejected’  He’s sent back into prison.  Into the walls, amongst the walls.  Walls are funny things.  I think lent can be a bit like that.  A bit claustrophobic.  We start this period of time before Easter and things change and are different.  A little stark and bland perhaps.  But it is supposed to be different to make us reflect a little on what is going on, on the time of year on what we are looking towards.  I suppose in a way that is what prison is there for, to make people reflect.  Though the times I spent visiting young offenders in prison the only things they were thinking about was when they would be out again what they were going to do when they got out.  There was little reflection on what they had done to end up there.  Little that was expressed to me at least.  Walls can contain and you start to hate them.  Red Hated what he was contained within and after 20 years he hated it so much that yes he had been rehabilitated and yes everything was fine, no longer a danger to society he could be sent out into the world and commit no more crimes.  He had been sent there for murder.  Well after a while those walls start to close in around you, you start to accept them.  I suppose part way through lent we might become accustomed to not eating chocolate or whatever it is we’re not doing or doing.  We may become accustomed to our lenten discipline.  Become used to lent.  And you start to accept the walls around you.  I wonder if it was ever like that for Jesus who spent 40 days in the wilderness or Noah who spent those days on the Ark the story from our OT reading?  Perhaps after a while they got used to it as well.  It became the norm, their ordinary life.

I often go up to St. Beuno’s up in the hills near Tremeirchion.  A wonderful place to go.  They have a delightful labyrinth set out in the garden and a little chapel up on a hill quiet, away from everything.  You can spend a quiet day week month or ever three months there.  They even provide space for three month silent retreats.
I remember going once with a group for a day – though I forget the speaker or even the subject.  Obviously that made a great impression on me.  We enjoyed lunch and the grounds and the sunshine and came away.  Some other people had arrived that day.  they had arrived for a three month silent retreat.  They were only allowed to speak once a week to a mentor about how it is going through the week to share any problems.  When we were there for the first time they were really unsure of themselves.  Most of them had not been there before, they didn’t know where everything was, and were really unsure of what was ahead of them.

I remember going back for another day and they were half way through or three quarters through their retreat.  You could see the difference immediately they knew their surroundings.  Mealtimes were hilarious for the outsider looking in because routine had taken over.  Things that were at set times were extremely important.  The walls of the centre had become so very familiar encompassing them.  So their routine and day to day life was familiar, that was what they knew.  I wish I had gone back at the end of their retreat when they were ready to leave because I wonder whether they would have wanted to leave?  They had spent three months in this place, pretty much cut off from the world around them no contact with other people, no communication.  They certainly had been anxious, then they were used to the place, So I wonder whether they would have wanted to leave by the end.  In the film Shawshank Redemption there is another inmate called Brookes Halten.  Half way or so through the film we see Brookes with a knife to the throat of another prisoner.  He has been given parole after 50 years.  He wants to cut the other prisoners throat so that they won’t send him on parole.  He wants to stay in the prison because it has become home.  It has become so familiar that he doesn’t want to go out.  He is an important man in the prison, an elder statesman, a librarian.  He’s looked up to and given respect.  Yet, outside the prison, Red reflects, he probably couldn’t even get a library card because of where he has come from.  He doesn’t want to leave.  Is it going to be like that at the end of lent?  So enclosed by what we have built around ourselves we don’t want to leave Lent has become familiar.  I think we do this in the Church all too often and frequently.  We find ourselves enclosed and familiar and it is very hard to step outside.  When you do, what is the world outside like?  For Brookes, the world outside was too much, he couldn’t take it.  It was so different from what he knew before that sadly he took his own life and he couldn’t understand why the world had changed so much.  He had been enclosed.  He had not seen the world for 50 years.  Fortunately for us lent isn’t 50 years, it’s only 40 days.  Jesus only spent 40 days in the wilderness and came out transformed.  He had taken something in with him.  Something which Brookes didn’t have and its something that someone who did go into that Prison did have.  And he is the subject of the next sermon.
If we have the hope that Easter brings when we enter into Lent we can do all things with a joyful step.