Tuesday 12 February 2008

Through Lent with Jesus: temptation and the wilderness

Getting our journey through Lent right takes some doing, but if we make the effort it is just possible that we will discover the secret to transforming the world in which we live. This has nothing to do with giving up chocolate, or anything else for that matter, but everything to do with facing up to our deepest desires and psychological drivers. It is about a difficult and demanding journey into the wild places of just who and how we are. Before his public ministry begins Jesus goes away into the desert wilderness. More than this, we are told that he is compelled by the Spirit of God to undertake this hazardous 40 day retreat. This part of the Judaean landscape near Jericho was inhospitable, dangerous and an unsettling place to be. As such, it was an appropriate setting for what God intended and a near perfect metaphor for what ensued.  There in the physical wilderness Jesus confronts the wild-place of life and self and discovers three things: he discovers himself, the reality of God's enfolding and uplifting presence, and trust in the living truths of that relationship as recounted in scripture.

In his book "Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation", Fr.Thomas Keating explores how we can face up to, live with and grow through our own hidden motivations. In Keating's view, failure to come to terms with "our false self - our injured, compensatory sense of who we are" is one the biggest impediments to our spiritual growth. Referring to Jesus struggle in the wilderness he says that "Lent is our battle with the same temptations. The biblical desert symbolizes the confrontation with the false self and interior purification. Jesus was tempted regarding each one of the instinctual needs. He did not consent to them while yet experiencing them in their utmost intensity." These instinctual drivers are our need for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control, and they are mirrored in the three temptations which Jesus endures as he discovers his authentic self. In each instance Jesus turns to the deep, personal truths of scripture upon which his faith community has relied down the centuries. There in the desert, beset by the wildness and desolation of what it is to be a human person like you and me, he discovers them as his own truth. And as he does he suddenly knows the presence of God cradling, enfolding and uplifting him.

Walking around the shore of Derwentwater last year we suddenly came upon this huge carving of a pair of cupped hands. Nestling in the landscape, it is a very gentle piece, one which invites you to stay and ponder its meaning.  Especially, perhaps, the unspoken invitation is to reflect upon just what in one's own life one would wish to place into the safe welcoming space of these offered hands. In my mind I link this image with the temptation narrative. Far from the clenched fist of a punitive God, as we see with Jesus in the desert, God's response to our all too human struggles with ourselves is to offer strong yet gentle hands to hold us and our hurting whilst we become in love who we truly are in God's sight.

In the journey of faith this is something we have to experience for ourselves, as the Spirit compels us to discover truth in our wild places. And if it is true that we change the world by first changing ourselves, then this journey into Lent is hugely significant, because human need for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control can so easily lead to the behaviours which bedevil our world. The tempestuous reaction to the typically detailed and elaborate musings of Archbishop Rowan Williams on Sharia Law and the rights of religious groups to express their identities in an increasingly secular state, is a case in point. Where is all this anger rooted? Of what, and more pointedly, of whom are we afraid and why, and is this rational? Deep and powerful forces were so easily unleashed by his words: the real fear is how such reactions have so often been manipulated to scapegoat groups, races and nations and to dehumanise individuals.

During Lent our calling is to engage afresh with the struggle to be real, authentic disciples; this leads us inevitably to the wilderness of the false self and the power of God to make us whole. Maybe in his own struggle in the desert Jesus was encouraged by the story of Moses and the burning bush. We recall how Moses was a man on the run, a murderer whose life was an utter mess. In the desert, beset by a wild place of his own making, he was surprised by God.  Moses realised that far from being alienated from God, the place where he stood in all his mess and muddle was truly holy ground. God was there. And there in love for him.

As we face up to our own false self this Lent God is there for us too. Not with a clenched fist, but with open hands. The burning bush of unconditional love is our truth, yours and mine. We need not be afraid, for as Julian of Norwich knew, in our wilderness experience God's truth says to us: "

You will not be overcome.
God did not say you will not be troubled,
You will not be belaboured,
You will not be disquieted;
But God said, You will not be overcome