Sunday, February 26, 2012
Learning To Survive In The Lenten Desert
The Gospel readings of the first and last Sundays after Epiphany and the first Sunday in Lent have a common feature: the testimony of the Holy God that Jesus is "the Beloved" and that God is "well-pleased" with him. Surely that's a tip-off that this is something extremely important for us to take notice of. In fact, last Sunday's reading verbalizes the need to "listen to him!"
Particularly in Lent, then, Jesus is the model, the exemplar upon whose words and actions ours are to be articulated and done. In addition to Mark's Gospel reading today (1:9-15), the Collect reminds us that the "blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan...", and it asks that God who "know[s] the weaknesses of each of us" -- far better than we even know ourselves -- will come "quickly to help us..."
Using Matthew's version of the temptation (which is used on Epiphany 1) rather than Mark’s, art interpreter, Sister Wendy Beckett, in her delightful little book, Sister Wendy's Meditations on the Mysteries of Our Faith (Liguori, 2007), comments: "We live in Lent for forty days in memory of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, when he set himself to work out what was his Father’s will for him, and to encounter, unprotected, the full force of temptation... Matthew's Gospel is quite explicit: he was led by the Spirit into the desert 'to be tempted'..."
Sr. Wendy uses the dramatic painting of the Temptation on the Mountain, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna, originally on the back of his magnificent altarpiece, known as the Maestà, in order to meditate on temptation, both in Jesus and in us, and on the themes of darkness and light. The Maestà, composed of some 43 panels, was Duccio's master work, commissioned by the city of Siena for Siena's cathedral in 1308, and installed in June, 1311. Sister Wendy narrates how Jesus is put in an unwanted situation by Satan the Adversary, and notes that "His face is very somber, and he clutches his cloak to his body as if to defend himself against contamination...", even as we ourselves cringe from temptations occasioned by unwholesome wandering thoughts, fantasies, and images of our "monkey-mind" which insert themselves so readily. Sr. Wendy is struck by the contrast Duccio has painted between Satan, the figure of "a moving darkness, and emptiness on the landscape", and the figure of Jesus, "tempted in every way that we are, but without sin", repudiating temptation with a firm gesture of his hand, giving us the strength and resolve to turn away in our own times of testing. "In the desert, hungry and alone," she says, "Jesus concentrated on his goals: he examined his life and possible future. We are taken into Lent each year to urge us to do the same..."
The Lenten desert country into which you and I have been invited once again is a landscape both "fascinating and terrifying”. We instinctively dread taking time to be face to face with ourselves before God, even for a short time like 6 1/2 weeks. Despite our best intentions, we often seek to fill the silences in our lives with diversion, with something to do, with something, as we often say, “meaningful”. But, as an anonymous Swiss monk writes: “...The essence of the desert is the absence of man;...Where man is not, is neither sin nor rumour of the business of the world...”
We enter these weeks of Lent not to do or to accomplish or to make ourselves become anything; not to “give up” cookies, or chocolate, or lattes, etc.; but something much deeper and more costly: namely, to give up our self-fullness. A young friend of mine in the Order of Julian of Norwich, Sister Therese, sent me a wonderful little card a few years ago which reads, “Abandon all hope of fruition.” The only thing you and I are called to “do” during our desert journey these next few weeks is to get ourselves out of God’s way and to let God do what God wants to do with us. Carmelite Sister Ruth Burrows poses this question: “...For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do..? [It] is beyond our power, nothing we can do can bring us to it, but God is longing to give it to us, to all of us, not to a select few...The prerequisite on our part is an acceptance of poverty, of need, of helplessness; the deep awareness that we need Jesus our saviour...who is our holiness...”
The desert is the place of essentials, of the bottom-line. It’s the place where you and I are vulnerable to all our hidden demons and temptations. God bids us to withdraw to this place of spiritual inconvenience, in fact, God woos us to it. It’s the place of the unexpected. God doesn’t tip us off in advance as to what the Lenten desert has in store for us, and no two of us will encounter our desert in exactly the same way.
One thing is sure, however: despite its rigors, the desert will reveal to us, if we allow it, how totally God loves us, how utterly favored, "beloved", we are by God, even as Jesus was God’s “beloved”. At the end of the desert journey there awaits the joy of renewed life, hope, and resurrection. But there is a cost. The anonymous monk quoted earlier gives us this advice: “...Humble and detached, go into the desert. For God, awaiting you there, you bring nothing worth having, except your entire availability...[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with [God], to nothing else...You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become ‘somebody’, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers...”
In the Prologue of his Rule for monks St. Benedict recommends that they willingly let the divine light into the desert country of their souls, “...and with startled ears” to “listen to what the divine voice is calling out every day...”: an echo of the desire of our hearts which Psalm 95 voices: “Oh that today we would hearken to your voice!”