Coming out of the Desert
Two interesting moments in time coincide as I reflect on this first Sunday in lent. Firstly, we hear on this day of how Jesus enters into the desert to be tempted and tested. Deserts are hostile places! Should you become lost in one you would find it a place of testing, a place of fear, of doubt, of stripping back to basics and a place of isolation.
The monastic movement as we know it today has its foundations in the desert. In the 3rd and 4th century men and women went out into the hostile deserts of Egypt and Syria, precisely to strip back to basics and in the silence and the struggles that desert life offered their intent was to deepen their relationship with God. It was precisely this movement, venturing across the seas, that brought the story of Christ to Celtic Ireland (long before Patrick) and in a glorious blending with the existing Celtic culture and spirituality enabled a particularly wonderful expression of this story emerging from the middle east (but I digress, more of this Celtic aspect in another post).
The second event that coincides, well as I write this it is yet to happen, is that tomorrow, here in the UK, the Prime Minister will announce the government's plan to bring us out of lockdown….'How is that even related?' I hear you ask! Well there is a sense in which this last year has for many been a bit like a desert experience. There has certainly been much fear and doubt, many struggles, stripping back, isolation and plenty of testing both of our patience and of the virus!
Unlike those who choose monastic life, and Jesus who inspired them with his life of poverty, service and self denial, we did not choose to go into the desert of lockdown! We did not choose the sense of loss that we felt individually and collectively as the virus took its toll on lives and livelihoods and we did not choose our key workers to have to make the incredible sacrifice that they have in order to get people through this as best as they possibly could. Undoubtedly our mourning will go on, as it must until we find a place where society can integrate all that has unfolded.
And yet despite this not being of our choosing we have, in common with those who have chosen the desert path, discovered a renewed sense of awe and wonder at nature. We found that when the traffic pollution was gone, birdsong rose to a crescendo that thrilled our hearts. We discovered that letting go of worldly clutter was quite a refreshing thing to do and we began to realise once more that people mattered far more than things. Kindness became a keyword and, as far as masks and social distancing would allow, we did our best to care for those who found the desert too hard to cope with.
In essence we learnt to listen with the 'ear of the heart' as St Benedict would put it. In other words we become more present to each other, to nature and in so doing, to the very source of all being. And it is this very presence of the heart that is the key to our healing as a planet and as a people called to righting the wrongs of our old way of seeing.
Across the world people speak of how we should learn the lessons of this time in lockdown and take them back into our ‘normal’ lives when we return. It's like a great awakening unfolding, a new perspective of how things could be if only we can remember what the desert has taught us.
For Jesus the desert experience was one which deepened his relationship with God; he left there to fulfil a call to serve, to love, and to give without counting the cost. I pray that we too will be transformed by our time in the desert and that the lessons will serve us well as we rebuild our lives and in this world. May the source of all being bless us all as we journey on.