Lent Reflection from Bishop Martin

I experience a great sense of relief when Lent arrives.


This for me is a season for a re-set, to lament my sins of the past many months, and to try to create the space and time I long for deep inside, space and time for God.


This is always easier said than done, and I learned long ago that creating space and putting nothing in it means it will soon fill up with things I don’t want.


So, as I do every year, I had been pondering what it was that I could take up, in that space that will keep my heart and mind attentive to God.

I was looking for something to pay attention in a deliberate and focussed way, something in addition to the routine and ordinary ways I try to stay attentive to God every day.


Before the pandemic Bishop Mike and I would take ten days out and walk across a section of Suffolk.  That was one sure way to stay attentive to God, and what God is doing among the remarkable people of our county.


Every one of those pilgrimages was a source of immense refreshment and renewal.


We visited churches, community organisations, businesses, schools, and at every visit were inspired by the diligence, creativity and care with which people were bringing good to others.


That was a great spiritual as well as physical exercise, and maybe I might be able to fit one more in before I retire in a year’s time – but that won’t be this Lent!


So what could I do?


A few weeks ago my wife and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary and took ourselves off to Florence for a long weekend.  I had never been there before, so was looking forward to enjoying the sights and the incredible array of art.


We spent hours in the Uffizi Gallery, built by Cosimo I de’ Medici, and the Accademia Gallery renowned for, amongst other masterpieces, Michelangelo’s sculptures including of course, the famous one of David, which was much larger than I had imagined it.


What became increasingly powerful for me was the fact that much of the art was not only religious, but was intended for devotion, whether personal, at home (for those who could afford it) or in church.


Sometimes we think religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was educational, telling the story of the Christian faith through pictures for a population that largely did not read, and did not know Latin, the language of the Church at that time.


But while that may be true for some art, for much it was to tell a deeper story than just convey information.  It was to touch the heart and soul, a devotional more than educational purpose.


Of course, that is obvious.  But then it does mean that you have to take your time to really see what you are looking at, to take in the artist’s interpretation of the biblical scene, and to let it enter your soul.


It also made me think that in our very verbal and aural culture, visual reflection is not something we – or I – often make space for.  We are in too much of a hurry, or, even, strangely, we don’t trust what we see.


The devotional focus came home particularly for me when we visited the San Marco monastery museum.


Fra Angelico was a friar in the monastery in the first half of the fifteenth century, the early Renaissance.


He was also an artist, and produced the most extraordinary array of religious paintings, most for the monastery.


As you walk up the stairs to the friars’ accommodation, to their cells, at the top of the stairs there is Fra Angelico’s most extraordinary depiction of the Annunciation, the angel’s visit to Mary telling her she was to bear a son.


And then in each of the friars’ cells he painted an individual fresco depicting a scene of the life of Christ, and which would be the focus of that friar’s devotions daily.


And in the corridor of cells for the novices, the junior friars, each cell had the same fresco, a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.  St Dominic was the founder of the religious order to which Fra Angelico and the monastery belonged, and St Dominic is in each fresco, in a different attitude of prayer in front of the cross.


This whole experience of attending to the devotional art of Florence has given me my activity for Lent, to help me in a renewed way make space for God.


Suffolk, particularly in her churches, has many items of devotional art – a painting behind an altar, a sculpture, even a carved pew end.


My plan is to gather together pictures of a number of these, and to use them as a focus for my own devotions, and write something that emerges from that experience for each item.


That is going to take longer than just the six weeks of Lent, and I hope at the end of it I will have something that I can share more widely, a collection of Suffolk devotions to help us make time for God.