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.