Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Itís not an easy place
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the March 15, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
In our culturally induced time-consciousness we may tend to relate to the Lenten days of prayer and penance as a mere segment of time measured on our calendars Ė one month plus 10 days. The total number of the days of Lent (40), however, is more than a mere count. The imagery of the number 40 has powerful symbolic reference in our Judeo-Christian spirituality tradition.
We are familiar, of course, with the picture of Jesusí time of temptation in the desert. Perhaps its mention even may direct our memories to other Scriptural scenes, perhaps most readily to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. But could we not also recall the 40 days and nights of storm and tempest before Noahís ark struck land with all those animals? And what about the 40 nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai before God gave him the Ten Commandments? Or the 40 days it took the prophet Elijah to travel to Mount Horeb where he found Godís presence in the whispering wind?
All of these days or years measured in segments of 40 do not calculate time in terms of calendar boxes and pages. They speak of significant times of searching and testing before something truly important happens. Interestingly, each experience is characterized by a sense of Godís absence. Those who endure such experiences indeed find themselves on a journey into the mystery of God which leads them they know-not-where.
Lent may extend 40 days on the liturgical calendar of the Church, but its importance is far greater than the measure of time. Lent is not just a great countdown before Easter. It has value in itself. Lent Ė like all the Scriptural descriptions of 40 days or 40 years Ė finds its fruitfulness in being a desert experience.
Contrary to the positive impression evoked by televisionís Discovery Channel, the Scriptural image of the desert is not a place of hidden beauty, sprinting bugs and stealthy predators. In the Word of God the desert experience is fraught with emptiness, danger, lifelessness, and even threat to life itself. The question is not what there is to see in the desert. (The Discovery Channel presentations almost invite the viewer to set up home there!) In Scripture, spending time in the desert is not a happy occasion. It is a matter of life and death. Survival is at stake.
Jesusí time in the wilderness calls us to embrace our own Lenten experience of the desert as a shared experience. His time of temptation is not so much one of feeling the enticing lure of sin. His desert experience, rather, is more a time of testing. His fight is not against selfishness and sin but against running from himself and his responsibility in life. During his 40-day experience Jesus had to struggle with his very identity, the focus of his heart, and the commitment of his life.
Is this not the greatest of our temptations? Itís not that we donít know the tug toward sin. We do. Yet the greatest test for any one of us is that of self-discovery and personal responsibility. To mature as Godís sons and daughters, we must face two basic questions: Who am I (truly)? and What must I do to be faithful to who I am?
We donít have to travel to a real dessert to find ourselves embroiled in this kind of temptation. We are tempted to run from our true selves all the time. More cleverly than any desert beast or creepy insect, we readily camouflage our honesty of heart. The busy-ness of life, peer pressure (whatever our number of years may be), spiritual laziness Ė and yes, personal decisions to sin Ė keep us from the awesome confrontation with our very selves and our purpose in life. Itís always much easier to pretend the questions are not there.
Every day of our lives can manifest elements of a Lentís desert journey. The Lenten season formalizes an aspect of our spiritual journey that we all would prefer to avoid. Presentations on the Discovery Channel notwithstanding, the desert experience of Lent is not one we embrace happily. Itís hard and personally challenging to take Lent seriously Ė to be in the desert. To be alone with ourselves without distraction is frightening because, left alone, we have to engage in the life-and-death struggle with who we are before God.
Jesus emerged victorious after his time in the desert. He had a clear sense of who he was and what he was to be about. There is wisdom in the fact that the Church begins every season of Lent with the recollection of Jesusí temptation in the desert. If we do not start there, we run the risk of being very busy about nothing of substance and transformation for 40 long days. We can hide behind ashes, purple decorations and the absence of sung alleluias. There is no personally effective Lent without a personal experience of the desert.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane; director of the dioceseís Deacon Formation Program; and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Spokane.)
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