I am a townsman by birth, born and brought up in London, with no experience of farming, so it surprised me how easily I took to the rural life-style of the parish in Sarawak, where I found myself after ordination. The people I was appointed to work with were the Iban, an upriver, farming people, who practised the ‘slash and burn’ method of agriculture, a method frowned on today as both wasteful and contributing to global warming, but at that time there was no other farming method available to them. When the time of the year was ripe, they would move into an area of forest, cut down the trees and undergrowth, let the sun dry it and when it was ready – burn it. It was always a thrill to see a whole hillside ablaze, with the men standing nearby to make sure it did not spread. Then, when it was completed, they would plant their rice and sweet-corn using the dibble method: they made a hole in the ground with a stick, put in a few grains of seed and then pushed the earth back with their foot. They had, then, done all they could to ensure a good harvest; after that, the only thing to do was to wait for the rains to make everything grow.
One thing about the slash and burn method, which still continues to amaze me, is how did the Iban discover that burning the forest would produce the fertiliser needed for their crops? Someone must have discovered this and, then, told others, who also found that it worked and in this way it became a tradition. However, I am sure that there were others who, to avoid the hard work of cutting and burning tried to find other ways – until they were hungry enough to trust the tradition and follow it. But, by the time I arrived in Sarawak, everyone knew that if you wanted enough food to eat for the year, then you needed to cut and burn – and then wait patiently for the rains.
We, Catholics, also have our tradition of ‘slash and burn’, which we need to in order to grow – and that is our tradition of Lent. At some time in our past, members of our Church discovered that to grow in grace we need a time, each year, when we fast, turn to deeper prayer and also share with others, the gifts the Lord has given to us. How this works, we are not really sure, but it does; and anyone, who follows traditions of Lent well, discovers that their celebration of Easter brings a joy and serenity they have never known before.
These traditions are not magic; just because I give up chocolate, for example, during Lent, does not mean I will suddenly become humble, or more loving or more gentle. But it does means that the ground of my heart is better prepared for when the rains of God’s grace fall upon me. Spiritual growth does not come from my efforts; I may use my will to resist weaknesses and faults, but if God’s grace is not there, they will re-appear again as soon as I relax. However, when the rains of God’s grace come upon me, then the inner workings of my soul are moved and the seeds of love, planted by the Spirit, begin to grow in my heart and life. But, there is also a part for me to play; I can help this process by adding the fertiliser of my fasting, deeper prayer and almsgiving.
So, enjoy your Lent! It may not be easy to fast, it may not be easy to give more energy to prayer and it certainly will not be easy to give away some of your hard earned money – but it will give a new taste to life and can be as thrilling as seeing a whole hillside burning. And more importantly, when the rains come you will be ready – and you will eat well at Easter.
Fr Terry Burke