Contemplation via catastrophe

Text: Luke 4:1-13 (Jesus tempted in the wilderness)

Lent is supposed to be a season of silence, fasting, and prayer. As in today’s story of Jesus in the wilderness, we are invited to spend the 40 days and nights of Lent in contemplation with just the Holy Spirit, and perhaps the devil, for company.

This season of contemplation is supposed to strip away illusions that get in the way of spiritual life and ministry. Silence, prayer and fasting help us confront mortality, whittle our egos down to size, and remind ourselves of our dependence on the Ground of Being we call Love.

But although I am all for disillusionment, spiritual growth, and a robust ministry of faith, hope and love, I have never had a Lenten season that matches this ideal. To be frank, I have never even attempted a symbolic fast by giving up a tempting indulgence like chocolate, alcohol, or red meat.

And although I usually attend worship services on the six Sundays that occur during Lent, and which are not part of its 40 days and night; and although I cherish this season in which we symbolically journey with Jesus and his friends from Galilee to their fate in Jerusalem, I don’t feel guilty about my lack of silence, fasting, or continuous prayer.

Silent retreats, fasting, and continuous prayer can be quite powerful, I am sure; and I don’t mean to discourage anyone, including myself, from trying them this Lent or at any time. But I don’t feel bad about spending yet another Lent without these elements because there are many other things that can strip us of illusions and move us closer to the mystical truths of reality.

I was reminded of another way this week when I read one of the three books that underlay the three evenings of discussion led by Joyce Madsen and Clair Woodbury here last month. Published last year, Parker Palmer’s “On the Brink of Everything: Gravity, Grace and Getting Old” has a chapter called “Contemplative by Catastrophe.” Here is how Palmer introduces it:

“The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, and moving closer to reality as we do. That process begins with losing the illusion that spirituality will float us above the daily fray. Reality may be hard, but it’s a safer place to live than in our illusions, which will always fail us, and at no point is that more true than in old age. Death is, after, the end of all our illusions – so why not do what we can to lose our illusions before death strips them from us? That we way we are less likely to die disappointed or in despair.

But as much as I envy people who practice spiritual disciplines that allow them to spot illusions before they get lost in them, I seem to need to be lost before I can be found. So, I generally do my contemplation after the train wreck, not before” (p. 54).

By the train wreck, Palmer means things like illness, failures, and death. In the aftermath of these train wrecks, Palmer has sometimes found himself with a smaller ego and greater access to the Spirit of Love that connects us to one another. Silence and fasting might have got him there, but in their absence, the ups and downs of life sometimes do the trick.

I resonate with Parker’s ideas. The pain of grief – after a failed relationship, a political disappointment, or the death of a loved one – has sometimes brought me closer to reality than my fitful attempts at spiritual practices.

This doesn’t mean that we should try to bring failure upon our self or community. We don’t have to try because life inevitably includes things we don’t like. At various points, the small fears and desires of our egos are confronted, and we receive a gracious push towards a Spirit that is greater than ourselves. Lent with its stories of defeat and death can help remind us of this truth.

Lent includes Good Friday in which we remember the execution of Jesus. Many of us prefer to skip Good Friday and go straight to Easter with is notes of springtime, joy, and new life; and I can understand this. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the Good Fridays that all individuals and communities inevitably experience, and to cherish the grace that lies within the grief that accompanies loss.

But for now, I leave Good Friday aside and focus on the temptations that confront Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness.

In this story, Jesus once again turns his back on power, comfort, and wealth. He shows that he is a Saviour who heals with love rather than worldly power.

The temptations offered to Jesus seem to be ones we will never face. The devil offers Jesus power over the world’s empires, something that is not on offer to us. He offers Jesus bread without toil, but we all have to work to make a life. And he offers Jesus protection from physical harm, but none of us expect angels to save us if we jump off of high buildings.

However, viewed from another perspective, I think we do face such temptations. Many cultural movements preach there are easy answers to the world’s problems. Some traditionalist say that if nations build walls, keep out foreigners, and return to the “good old days” where men were men and women knew their place, the problems that frighten us will disappear.

On the other side, some radical say that if governments enact a Green New Deal, environmental destruction will cease. But whether traditional or radical, such ideas can help us stay asleep to reality, I believe.

We need sleep, of course, and I can understand the temptation to deny difficult realities and so succumb to the world’s many temptations.

Nevertheless, I value the attempt to stay awake because the light of reality is the only place for us to experience beauty and love. For this reason, I try to use the journey of Lent to stay awake. Without the rigours of the journey to Jerusalem, Easter still arrives, but some of the joy of its new life is then muted. Lent tries to keep us awake to the fullness of joy and love for which I give thanks.

Jesus resists the devil’s temptations. He is not a saviour who lords it over humanity with military power or economic wealth. He is a saviour who joins us on the journey.

Like Jesus, we too are children of God. We carry an inner flame that connects us with one another and with the source of Love we call God. Like Jesus, we don’t have power to prevent all hunger, physical harm, or death. But like Jesus, our humble status opens a way to healing.

We may not have wealth. But we have an ability to care for ourselves, our families and our neighbours near and far. We don’t have immunity for physical pain, illness, or death. But we have a spirit of caring that flows within this community and which connects us to God’s Holy Spirit both now and always. We don’t have the power to rule the earth like an emperor. But we have love, which is both infinite and eternally valuable.

This Lent as we symbolically journey with Jesus and his friends from their life in the provinces to their fate in Jerusalem, may we confront some of our temptations and so stay awake to the realities of love.

We cannot escape all the trials and difficulties of either life or of Lent. But we are never far from God’s Love or far from our humble but healing companion on the road, Jesus the Christ.

And for this good news I say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

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