At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
~ MK 4:12-13
Sarah Parsons asks us in her book A Clearing Season to begin where Jesus begins: in the wilderness. As we begin our Lenten journey, she says, we need to find our wilderness, I mean actively seek this wild place rather, and sit there in quiet. I don’t know about you, but that sounds scary to me! As I look over my notations in this first chapter, I’ve underlined things like barrage of fears, worries and anxieties, a period of great loss and confusion, and emotional pain and unhappiness. Yikes! What are you expecting of my wilderness, Sarah? It’s wild, but it’s not that wild.
And this is where I want to begin–with expectations. It’s important we not lay claim to anyone’s wilderness or be led to feel that clearing space for God this Lenten season means we must stare the devil down or finally clean out that closet once and for all. Parsons uses, in my opinion, some strong language in these first and second chapters that might be off putting. But as I’ve progressed through her book and looked over her exercises, I eventually realized that my wilderness is gonna do, and yours will, too. Because when we put the emotional language aside, we’re still left with the same very important process. I’m afraid to choose terms to define this process right now because like you, I am in the midst of it, but I am paying attention. Gathering as I go. This first week of Lent involves making time for silence and solitude, and as I gaze down our path into the weeks ahead, I see a gradual opening filled with more light, more grace, more joy. More God.
Each day during [this first week of Lent], spend time in quiet solitude, thinking about wilderness. If you don’t already have a regular prayer time, begin with ten to fifteen minutes a day. When you sit in your chosen solitary place, distractions will bombard you. This is normal.
When I think about wilderness, I must admit I hear the crunch of pine needles underfoot and smell the warm earth dusting up around me. You see, I’m already struggling with control over her metaphor! I did not make enough time this week for quiet and solitude, and when I did, I couldn’t pay attention to God or stop to map my “wilderness.” In fact, I even spent one hour at a contemplative prayer service and chatted with myself the whole time. We gathered around the font and processed into the sanctuary chanting a Taize prayer. The altar had been beautifully adorned with a large icon for our meditation, and all around it pooled flickering tea lights. For the first few minutes I was swept up in the visual beauty but then as soon as I sat down and began to pray, I heard the creaking of the roof. Then the deafening silence. Then a host of thoughts crowded in. My wilderness. I was lost in it. And running. I couldn’t help but wonder if everyone else was, too.
I’m sure you’ve experienced these distractions. It’s hard to be still, and this is what Lent asks of us. It’s hard. My days are packed with appointments, lectures, meetings. My evenings are filled with shuttle trips up and down the same boulevard, picking up and dropping off children and running to the market, the cleaners, squeezing in time for nurturing friendships and serving in ministry. I commute about an hour to work and spend that time listening to Christian music, pretending it’s prayerful, but like in that church, I’m always running. Having conversations in my head. Dreaming and planning. I once did an overnight retreat at a monastery in Big Sur, and my mind only quieted down just as it was time to head home.
Parsons has asked us to think about what emotions our wilderness stirs in us, and for me, those emotions are for the most part positive. Outside of grading student essays, everything I do brings me joy. But when I think of the impact my busy-ness has on those around me, I feel guilt and sadness. There are times when the chaos is less controlled, and while my child might be giving me a long, detailed synopsis of what she’s built on her Minecraft, I’m only half-heartedly listening. Thinking instead of that stack of papers or that meeting I need to prep for. Wilderness pressing in.
And yet I do believe I receive God’s grace when I sit in wonder with my child. When I look into her eyes. When I see her. When I hear her. When I know her. My oldest has her first crush on a boy and when we’re riding home in the car or folding laundry and she begins to tell me about him, how he’s beautiful and funny and sits next to her in social studies and how he “bumped” her foot under the desk the other day, she’s clearing space for me; she’s inviting me in to sacred space where I can see, and hear, and know her. In these moments, I feel God’s presence between us and am filled with gratitude. My littlest’s favorite time of day is when I crawl into her bed and read Homer to her. When I finish a few pages of The Odyssey and move to set the book down, she clings to my shirt, throws her tiny legs over mine, and begs me to cuddle just a few more minutes. These are moments of peace in the midst of my life’s motion and sound. They are moments of grace. Sacraments even. And this Lent I never want to miss a single one.
As a fan’s notes for grace, and quavery chant against the dark, and hoorah from the hustings, I sing a song of things that make us grin and bow, that just for an instant let us see sometimes the web and weave of merciful, the endless possible, the incomprehensible inexhaustible inexplicable yes. ~ Brian Doyle “Cool Things” from Grace Notes
And how about you? Have you found time to map your own wilderness this first week of Lent? Where in your life do you feel a sense of struggle or tension? Amidst that, where can you sense God’s presence? Leave a comment and let us know how you’re doing with Parsons’ book and your Lenten Journey.
If you are making your way here for the first time, we are discussing Sarah Parsons book A Clearing Season. If you don’t have the book, you can still follow along. Next week we will reflect on our Lenten practices. Parsons asks us to address some element of our wilderness and consider one or more ways we might simply invite God into that space. The God of healing. The God of mercy wonder and awe. The God who invites you to the mountaintop, to let go of all your burdens and rest in holy, radiant light.
3 thoughts on “lent: exploring the wilderness”
I have found Sarah Parsons’ take on “the wilderness” to be liberating for me to actually want to confront my own. The chaos of my busy mind while in silent contemplation; the anxieties and worries about upcoming events and encounters, the “shoulds” and “should nots” of my judging self, the distracting lists and planning the future (immediate and distant), the judging, condemning and wanting to change others… these are all aspects of my wilderness. Being invited by her to look at these without trying (yet) to diminish or eliminate them has allowed me to relax and see them for what they are (temptations and beasts) and be able to do something with them (write a list), eases those feelings of “not enough” or guilt and usually get when confronting my shortcomings. And I can’t forget my angels… one being dear Rebecca who has given me this opportunity to use this Lent to deepen and strengthen my relationship with God (peace, love and acceptance).
I am reading a wonderful book this Lent called THE PROVINCE OF JOY: PRAYING WITH FLANNERY O’CONNOR, which is a book of hours–the morning and evening prayers O’Connor did towards the end of her life. Her Wednesday morning Gospel meditation is on Mark 5:25-34, the woman who touched Jesus’ clothes and was cured of her afflictions. I realized how appropriate this morning’s prayers and readings were for our week in the wilderness and thought I would share a piece of them with you:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
After meditating on the Gospel and reading this passage from Romans, O’Connor prayed, Today, O Lord, I thank you for the mystery of affliction that, somehow, brings me closer to you. . . . I pray for the courage and hope necessary to sustain me, those I know and love, and those I do not know and love, as we endure the challenges and the inevitable pains of mortality that mark us as human. Enable me to be like the woman in the Gospel whose affliction emboldened her to come close to Christ, to reach out and touch the hem of his garment, and to receive, in return, the healing power of his grace.
I found that my experience of wilderness is totally opposite of Ms. Parsons. She says “We can transform this wilderness and make it our home, our garden, a place that INVITES GOD IN AND ASKS GOD TO STAY.” I find it is a place where I INVITE GOD IN AND ASK HIM/HER TO STAY. Changes completely what a Lenten journey can be, no?
A great book named ‘The Prayer of Cosas’ (The Prayer of Things) was written by a lay Franciscan and she learns that “chatting to herself” was, in fact, God conversing with her!