40 days to wander


So we’ve just celebrated the first Sunday of Lent, and I’ve had the chance to meditate more on Sunday’s gospel, on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Thanks also to the wisdom of our priest, Monsignor Torgerson,  I was pushed further along the road to understanding the reading than what my discussion with the 12-year olds had involved. “It strikes me”, said Monsignor, “that what happened to Jesus in the desert – the temptations of Satan – had everything to do with what happened to him in the Jordan River. John at first refuses to baptise his cousin, saying he was unworthy to even do up the strap of Jesus’ sandal. But Jesus insists, choosing to take on every aspect of our humanity, including the need to be washed in the waters of redemption. Then the heavens open, and a voice says – “You are my Son, the Beloved. My favour rests on you.” It is only after this that Jesus goes into the desert – not just to be tempted, as we tend to think of it, but to prepare for his ministry. When Satan comes to Jesus, each time he starts his temptations with “IF you are the Son of God…”. But Jesus has nothing to prove. He knows he is the Son of God, just as we should know we are the children of God. So when Satan comes to us with temptations, we can echo Christ and say, “I shall not put the Lord God to the test…because I trust in His love.”

Joshua Tree is a U.S. National Park that includes both the Mojave and Colorado deserts. It is named for the Joshua trees that cover its open spaces, strangely shaped plants that reminded the 19th century Mormons settlers who crossed the desert of the prophet Joshua raising his arms in prayer. On a hot dry day in August it is particularly inhospitable. Signs as we drive into the park warn of extreme fire risks, and the sun beats down at us, heat emanating from the surface too as we make our way down the first trail of the day. The silence in the desert is astounding. There is no car on the roads as far as we can see, and nobody on the trail, either. Desert animals are mostly silent, conserving their energy in the heat. Aside from the quick rustle of a lizard flicking under a bush, or the whirr of a bird pouncing on a rare insect, the only sound we hear is that of our own footsteps. Clambering to the top of a rock stack, I look out over the expanse of the desert. It is still, silent, and overwhelming. Later we would come across cave paintings, vandalised by more contemporary travellers, and the remnants of a gold mine, its parts visible but decaying. The desert is not as empty as it looks, filled with human history and hiding on and between its boulders and peaks a myriad of other living creatures. Yet that night, lying on our backs staring at the stars, its vastness and seeming emptiness again enfolded us.

For those of us used to being busy answering to demands of things to do and people to attend to, the stillness of the desert is shocking. But it is that which makes it the perfect place to discover ourselves. Without the noise and distractions of our daily lives to hide behind, we have no choice but to face ourselves. Was this true for Jesus too? Quite possibly. As the only son of a widowed mother and a carpenter, he’d have had plenty to busy himself with at home. Called to the River Jordan for baptism, then driven to the desert to fast and pray, he stepped into his new life, with possibly the strongest sense of his mission he’d had thus far. I love Matt Maher’s depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, towards the end of 40 days, as an alternate version of himself. How true is it that often it is our less noble selves who, after we’ve experienced a time of hardship, offer the easy option out, play on doubts, crave to be worshipped over God? It could be that Satan, not being omniscient (how often we forget that!), is trying to work out if Jesus truly is the Messiah. Jesus successfully resisting his three temptations proves he is the chosen one, and Satan leaves Jesus of his own volition. I pray this Lent that, using this time in the desert the Church marks out for us, praying, fasting, and giving alms, we remember that in response to the temptations that cross our path, we know that we are the beloved, with the favour of God. That itself should go a good way to scaring the Tempter back to where he came from!

Being human, though, means we do doubt. Like my 12-year olds had realised, faith is required from us in vast quantities – in sometimes unreasonable quantities. And sometimes we meet that challenge, and sometimes we don’t. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I have found that holding on, sometimes just till I can next talk to someone, makes all the difference. And like in the Gospel, angels (in their guises as friends, family, priest, stranger, blog-writer) come and minister to me. Let’s live Lent with the knowledge that we may be bound and broken – but that at the end of it all, there is the Resurrection.

Forty days to wander
Forty days to die to self
Forty days to grow stronger
As faith breaks open the gates of hell…

…’Cause in the desert of temptation
Lies the storm of true conversion
Where springs of living water drown and refresh you
And as the Jordan pours out change
Your true self is all that remains
Where springs of living water bind and break you
Bind and break you

Matt Maher, Forty Days


DH Lawrence on Marriage, Nature, Obedience, and Love. Friday after Ash Wednesday

Man and woman are like the earth, that brings forth flowers
in summer, and love, but underneath is rock.

Older than flowers, older than ferns, older than foraminiferae,
older than plasm altogether is the soul underneath.
And when, throughout all the wild chaos of love
slowly a gem forms, in the ancient, once-more-molten rocks
of two human hearts, two ancient rocks,
a man’s heart and a woman’s,
that is the crystal of peace, the slow hard jewel of trust,
the sapphire of fidelity.
The gem of mutual peace emerging from the wild chaos of love.

Fidelity, DH Lawrence

Matthew 9:14-15 has Jesus describe himself as the bridegroom, coming to meet His bride. Having been the bride, it’s an image I love, and one I’m constantly drawing more from. With both Sam and Christ, I pray our relationship grows to become “the crystal of peace, the slow hard jewel of trust,/the sapphire of fidelity./The gem of mutual peace emerging from the wild chaos of love.”  Amen.

Valerie & Sam-1276

Oboedientia et Pax

Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the Lord…you will live. (Deut 30:15-16)

Sounds like a simple enough choice. But obedience doesn’t come too naturally – we question authority as children, rebel as teenagers, think ourselves out of the need to obey as adults. What are the commandments of the Lord? In Moses’ time there were the Ten on the tablets; Christ summarises them to just two: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength”, and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”.

I eschewed the wilderness of the beach today to enter the wilderness of a classroom of 12-year olds. I’ve known them for about 6 months now, and they’ve almost all made the move from inquisitive children to stand-offish teens with astounding punctuality. What hasn’t changed is their penchant for “why” questions – though there has been a shift to experimental impudence. There was genuine bafflement in our circle of ten today however, when discussing the Gospel for this Sunday – Christ’s temptations in the desert. “Why”, asked one kid, “didn’t Jesus just tell Satan to go away? Surely that would have worked.” Good question, young padawan. I flip the question back at the group. “Why do you think Jesus responded the way he did? Why didn’t he pull rank on Satan?” I’m met with mutters and shrugs, the universal teen language. Then a girl raises her hand. She’d already read the whole handout, ignoring most of the chatter of the previous discussion. “He keeps quoting the Old Testament. He can’t…won’t disobey those rules.” Spot on. “And why is that?” Even read-ahead girl is stumped. To be honest, even though I knew the answer – in order to live a fully human experience, Christ chose to face temptation as we have to, with the Word of God as His (and our) only weapon –  I couldn’t claim to understand it fully. Intellectually and scripturally Christ’s repartee with the devil made sense, and was the only way, really, the Messiah could have dealt with the situation. But could any of us hope to do the same? To obey the dictates of the Law with such faith in its righteousness? One of the boys picks up on the current of skepticism running round the circle. “He won’t disobey the rules, because he knows God is real, and he knows the rules are true”. Another boy jumps to challenge that thought: “But if Jesus knows all of that…does that mean He doesn’t have to have faith?” “Ah. Well technically, yes. Since faith is “seeing through a glass darkly”, and since Jesus, though fully human, doesn’t lose His divinity, He does not have faith in the sense that we understand ourselves to have faith – He has knowledge of the Father, and faith in Him the way you trust in your parents.” The kids aren’t sure what to do with this, and I’m not sure I’ve handled it as well as I could have. I consider introducing them to ascending Christology, then decide it’s not worth the confusion for now. I’m also pretty sure the conversation has come off the tracks – this was supposed to be about resisting temptation, to segue nicely into an activity about Lent. Luckily, I’m rescued by the usually silent one: “Really though, at the end it’s all about obeying. There’s no difference between him obeying because he knows it’s true and us obeying because we choose to believe it’s true.” Obedience! Choice! Belief! We’re back on solid(ish) ground.

Discussing faith, religion, and Scripture with 12-year olds is a scary experience, but one I’d recommend. They ask the questions you forgot you had, and don’t take too kindly to choices as given by Moses above. “But how about if…” is a common response to any black-or-white scenario, and I’m glad for that. The world isn’t black and white, their reality certainly isn’t, and our predominant culture makes it less and less comfortable to accept even the basic tenets of our faith. Blind obedience is (rightly) discouraged in their homes and in school, and, I hope, in our churches too. Popular culture disparages obedience, and like the 12-year olds we need to learn to tread the often grey line between being led astray and refusing a guide in the form of Christ and His Church. Oboedientia et pax – Blessed Pope John Paul XXIII’s motto of obedience and peace – hints at the fruits of learned obedience to God’s commandments – obedience through faith, a faith developed through the study of Scripture and Tradition. This Lent I pray I learn to swallow my pride, and to obey.


Now is a very acceptable time.

I did manage to write a post yesterday, I just didn’t manage to publish it. Here it is:

I’m sat on the sand with the tide going out. Every few minutes the regular roar of the ocean subsides, as the tide flattens and washes up the beach. A solitary marbled godwit follows the waves back in, poking at the ripples the sea’s left behind, and scampering out of its way when it next returns. A flock of even smaller birds – tiny sanderlings – fly above it in formation, a rippling net of plump grey bodies. Two paddle boarders sit about 15 meters out to sea. The sanderlings rush after a wave, forming a border around its rise and fall. Their scurrying motion makes them look like mice. I wonder at their courage. Even the smallest wave dwarfs them, and the ripples come up to their chests. To run to meet the ocean must take incredible boldness, and faith. Can birds have faith? The lone godwit stands and watches. In a second the flock rises and speeds above the waves, their white bellies glittering in the morning sun.

At Mass this morning the readings were of preparation, renewal, and seeking. “Blow the trumpet in Zion”, proclaims the Old Testament prophet Joel. “Sanctify a fast; call an assembly; gather the people…Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”” Prepare. Renew. Seek. Paul says, writing to the Corinthians,

“…be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we may become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Prepare. Renew. Seek. In the Gospel, it’s Christ who proclaims

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

All three readings call me to be conscious of my actions. Of what I do, and how I do it. Conscious in a way the little sanderlings probably aren’t, drawn by their instinct to act as part of a flock, to chase the waves for sustenance. Even the godwit, more judicious in its scavenging, is driven above all by the need to survive. The desire to act, and to act quickly, often overrides our human ability to be still. Lent isn’t just a time for silence and stillness, though. The traditional acts of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – are just that – actions. Lent calls us to be active in our seeking, not passive in our waiting to be found. Having said that, I sometimes run the danger of being too active, of forgetting that the star in this play is God, not me.

The birds which dominate this beach – all the beaches I’ve been to – are the seagulls. Bigger, louder, and probably smarter than the others, they strut along the shoreline, chest out, head up. With black-tipped beaks and tails, bright white bodies and ash grey wings, they are neat but intimidating – the suited mafioso of SoCal’s sands. One paces towards me, and stops about a meter away. I’ve got the spot he wants, a perch of raised sand, covered in bird prints. These little hillocks rise up from the beach every couple of feet, and most have at least one seagull settled on them. I hold my ground, and he grooms himself, before making a rush at a smaller gull, and taking its spot instead.

I’m guilty sometimes of being as opportunistic as that seagull, even in my faith life. Looking for good ‘spots’ in ministry or in other people’s opinion, nudging things my way (though I’d hope not at the expense of other ‘seagulls’…). Christ’s words are convicting: “Don’t do things to look good or be more comfortable. If they should be done, do them, but make sure it’s God you’re glorifying, not you.” (My paraphrase). One of the reflection pieces I’m reading sets out what is going to be pretty challenging for me, personally. I’m used to doing, not to being. The former might take more physical effort, but the latter is going to take more spiritual will:

“Instead of theatrics, Jesus is inviting us to simple honesty. To smallness. To just being there and sensing his grace, quiet enough, still enough to feel the gentle tugs of the Spirit to newness, to giving up obstacles to the growth of a treasured relationship, to finding a few moments daily to read the Word of God, to surrender fear…What God is going to do in your life will surprise you. Expect it.” – Lenten Grace, Daily Gospel Reflections by the Daughters of St Paul

The boom and wash of the waves take me to another place, another seafront where I’d sat raised above the water. The cliffs of Aran, Ireland, are treacherous, the pounding of its waves threatening. The island itself is inhospitable to human living, sparsely populated and largely infertile. There the inhabitants used to depend on seagulls as food, and even now are hugely vulnerable to the elements. On a 10 day field trip there I’d learned to be quiet, to watch, and to listen. It’s time again to do that, though in noisy, lively, exciting L.A., it might be more difficult, and definitely different, to return to the silent space I’d once carved out, sitting on limestone rock. Here’s to a different, challenging, and fulfilling Lent. Lenten blessings, all.

Ash Wednesday, Santa Monica Beach
Ash Wednesday, Santa Monica Beach with godwit