When writing this article I came across a word I had not encountered before – ‘nurdling’. According to the website – click here – this is the process of trying to remove discarded plastic from beaches by means of a sieve, as shown on the website. Nurdling is an urgent priority on our planet because of our irresponsibility towards the creation which God has made – this is why responsible public authorities are trying gradually to outlaw plastic bottles. Last Sunday, our last Sunday before the season of Lent, we heard these words at Mass: ‘In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too the defects of a man appear in his talk’. The reading was from Ecclesiasticus, (sometimes called the book of Sirach), one of the last books in the Old Testament, probably the 2nd century BCE. Because it is only to be found in the Greek version of the Old Testament and not the Hebrew, you don’t normally find the book in Protestant Bibles. The whole reading we heard points to how we are really betrayed so often by what we say – our words show the sort of person we are.
It was a good reading to hear in the last few days before Lent. This season is a time for nurdling – for trying to sieve out the rubbish in our lives, to leave it behind. This is what we do when we go to confession. God responds to our acknowledging of our sin by his boundless love – he forgives our sins and wipes the slate clean through the words of the absolution spoken by the priest. Of course, most of us do find that the sieve builds up another supply of rubbish all too soon. But perhaps what is so useful about Lent is that if we’re open to God’s grace we can find the rubbish properly and recognise it; we may not have seen it before.
This applies both in our personal lives and in the way in which we look at the world and the Church. Lent has to be about both things, keeping them in balance. We pay attention to our personal lives by going to confession, by trying to take a serious look at where we’re going, not simply rattling out the same old sins. It’s an opportunity to take stock, to engage in a proper exercise of reflection – as Archbishop Peter reminded us in his Pastoral letter last Sunday, quoting Socrates, ‘an unreflected life is not worth living.’ We can’t nurdle, or sift the rubbish out, if we don’t see that it’s there. Strangely, at a time when counselling and therapy are rightly valued and helpful, our use of the sacrament of Confession has declined: the rise of individualism has led us simply to think that we can live our lives without God’s help or the grace of the sacraments. We go to Confession because we’re aware that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, the family of the Catholic Church. We are not meant to be alone or isolated.
Being part of something bigger is why sieving out the rubbish and leaving it behind also has a corporate dimension. Lent is not just about our personal lives: it’s about the life of the world and the life of the Church.
This means that Lent has a message for our society and our world, racked at present by so much nastiness, violence and divisiveness, leading many to depression and even despair. These things don’t just happen: they are the result of sin, sin which is avoidable and culpable. As we also heard last Sunday, Jesus says to us in the gospel of Luke, ‘There is no sound tree that produces rotten fruit, nor again a rotten tree that produces sound fruit’, verses we should repeat to ourselves every day at this time. Our country, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, need desperately to hear this message.
But the problem is not just ‘out there’. The Church has to hear it too, to sieve out the rubbish, to nurdle. The extent of the child abuse crisis, and the criminally irresponsible way in which the crisis has been handled by those in responsibility in the Church, is a lot of rubbish in the sieve. A natural but very flawed response is for people to argue that it’s someone else’s problem, someone else’s sin. True, individual human beings who have the use of reason are responsible for their actions, for which they will answer to God: but sinfulness and guilt affect and damage us all, because we are all part of the Body of Christ. Moreover we can be party to sin if we collude with it, if we keep silence, if we try to silence others, if we fawn on leaders who have let the Church down. In Rome the other week when the Holy Father presided at an act of repentance with the other bishops at the Child Abuse ‘summit’, this was part of the message. We are all affected and damaged by crimes, by sins, committed against children, young people, vulnerably adults, Religious Sisters and others. Part of the message of Lent is a call to the whole Church to discern the sin, to sieve it out, to nurdle, and to seek God’s forgiveness.