I VERY MUCH ENJOYED a brief visit to the marvellously reordered, Grade 1 listed, St Bartholomew’s Wilmslow today, where I was much taken with a simple but very, very striking representation of Jesus in the Wilderness – in a quiet corner of the Church. There’s such a great deal to be contemplated in the idea, the spiritual metaphor for us, of wilderness – a place where we come face to face with the reality, the depths, of our physical and spiritual selves. I often return to the definition of wilderness found in several dictionaries as “a place that hasn’t been interfered with by humankind”. Wilmslow’s Wilderness provides much needed pause for thought in a sometimes too busy world, sacred or secular. Guess which neighbouring parish church might be discovering a little wilderness next year? 😉
ASHEN FACED to the wilderness then, Abba – woodwork lessons, family tantrums, and the doctors of the law all behind me. Who’d ever have thought life both joy and trauma? How shall I bear it, without her there to guide me? Or gentle father or mother, or sister or brother? In the wilderness.
Ashen faced? Aye, ashen faced. Beaten by “broken middle”.* Happier without your Christos “charism” – ordinary waking and working and sleeping and loving have suited me well – not so keen on desert weather.
Which theological college would be my cup of tea, Father? Which one, do you think, would be really me? Where’s the least traumatic training-ground for Galilee-work – or the dear old CofE? Not too much unpacking preferably. Probably fairly trad? Not too much facing up to the real inner me that thinks I’m barking mad.
Hey-ho, in a few year’s time it’ll be me who’s blowing the trumpet in Zion – and me who’s doing the ash. Dust thou art, I shall tell them, and what are you giving up? – I’ll ask. Then back to the vicarage I shall trot, for coffee and Church Times – bashing women-bishops and bashing gays – and funerial decline.
Ashen faced? You’re not kidding. Day and night out here I think I’m round the bend – and inside calls me deeper in. Where’s the right and where’s the wrong? Did the Temple doctors have the truth all along? But why then the belly-aching, this anger in me, the baulking at their glib exclusion? Why does my body ache for communion? Why this beckoning, this leading into wilderness, and why – O God I miss her – why the torments, isolation, why alone?
Yes, yes I hear her spirit, but soft-spoken, too soft-spoken – there’s a howling in wilderness here. She’s drowned out too often by louder silence – daring, mocking, roaring, scoffing. And I respond with my best essay’s texts – now it’s me who’s brandishing the feather! – and have to shout my defences as opposition turns up fork-tongued volume, shouting me down. Jump, screams the liar, you’ll come to no harm. Speak up, for God’s sake. Speak up, small, beloved voice of calm.
Yes, you heard. It’s a curse, I said, wretched period. Don’t make it worse. What do you mean – “priestly call”. What’s the use? I’m not being obtuse – you just don’t get it, God – womanhood – or me, at all.
O God! You don’t mean me, Lord? – not Michael Andrews – d’you mean me? But I love Richard, God Almighty. You’d better get real, see. Synod would have hysterics. I’m out here in wilderness. You don’t know them, God, or me.
Ashen faced to the wilderness then, Amma. Down from the pinnacle in one quick leap. Here the devil and the Pope and Archbishop spring surprises in the heat. How long, O God-on-high-and-yet-within this aching, hungry, yearning body – how long till I can show my own true face – held, softly sighing, in the embrace of home?
* from Rachel Mann’s “Presiding from the Broken Middle“
Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoy, 1872, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia
EVERY MOMENT in the life of humankind might be described as “long in time” – as surely as Christ’s forty days in the wilderness – and all that followed – would have seemed “long.” And perhaps Wendell Berry’s Epitaph speaks of any and all who have known such wilderness experience, of all humankind, each in their own time, and of a great and eternal in-gathering in which we’ll all be added to one another. What an eternally glorious Easter that would be …
Having lived long in time,
he lives now in timelessness
without sorrow, made perfect
by our never finished love,
by our compassion and forgiveness,
and by his happiness in receiving
these gifts we give. Here in time
we are added to one another forever.
The Selected Poems: Epitaph from Entries, p 149
I’M STILL THINKING about what to give up for Lent, my friend said this morning. And I wasn’t much help. I’m not much of a giver-upper for Lent these days. More of a take-something-upper. But let it not be some heavy or miserable task. Let it be something of Lent, something “to lengthen” Spring days. Something to widen the smile. Something to put a spring in a lengthening stride. Something that’s outward looking, life enhancing, broad and wide.
I imagine that Jesus was “guided by the Spirit” into the “wilderness” so that he had a chance to weigh up what was really important in and about his own life before encouraging others to “consider” what was important about theirs. I wonder whether he was even aware of his vocation to the preaching life at this stage?
And it seems to me that his grappling must have worked. And to good effect. For the preaching, teaching and healing ministry that followed his Lent, though brief in years, was to prove “lengthening” in a hundred thousand million ways – or more! Having lived Lent Jesus was patently charged, fizzing with life-changing “good news”, and – more than that – with good life for those who wanted to hear it and live it and for those who didn’t or couldn’t.
Jesus taught and lived healing and liberating stuff: Love life – especially, perhaps particularly, the life in others first. And so transform your world. Your world. And that of those around you.
Not so much a churchy-sort-of-a-Lent in Jesus’ mind then? More a case – in the first instance – of being glad to be alive, of being glad to be in God. And sharing that gladness. That’s transforming. That close and connected relationship with God, and with the life God breathes into us. That’s what makes flowers bloom in wilderness and in deserts … especially the deserts of our hearts.
STOP THE CLOCK! Where does time go to? Surely Christmas was only half an hour ago and Ash Wednesday’s already just around the corner. God grant me the grace when Lent arrives to spend a bit of time alone in the “Wilderness” (gorgeously described by many commentators as a place undisturbed by the “works” of humankind). We understand that Jesus was led out into the wilderness alone. He wasn’t facing down demons in a Lent Group.
One of the demons I shall have a go at facing down is the one that’s constantly telling us all to run faster. It might as well be “jump down from this Temple and I’ll catch you”. Will anyone “catch” me? You know, I don’t believe that any more than Jesus did. It’s my own responsibility to slow down a bit – and I know that that involves a bit more effort than just shouting “stop the clock”. But let no-one pretend that it’s easy, that’s all. Because it ain’t.
And let no-one be persuaded by the voices that encourage us to abrogate our personal responsibilities to them or to the institutions they represent – especially the “religious” voices. Because a) they don’t mean it, and b) God made us capable of recognising that if we’re to have a share of responsibility for all life we must first learn to be responsible for our own.
WHAT A CHARACTER! What a visionary John the Baptist appears to have been. “Skinny as a cactus” as Barbara Brown Taylor has it, and ready to stand before all-comers to present them with a haunting hunch. No. He was not the Christ. No. Not the greatest amongst the prophets, past or present. No. Not the light that was to come into the world. No. He didn’t know his name. Yes. He understood that most people had heard more messianic / apocalyptic preachers than they’d had hot dinners. No. He wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the one who’s absolutely going to be raised up, “one who stands among you”. It’s a hunch. A haunting hunch. Not much detail yet. But an absolute assurance that what’s needed in this world, the real and radical hope for the friendless, the unheard, the dispossessed (of whom, in our time too, Archbishop Rowan has been writing in the Advent wilderness this week) – is repentance. Not a nauseating or ingratiating or formulaic “Father, forgive me for I have sinned” but repentance. Turning around. Looking at life, and at love, and the way we live, and the way we love, in a new way. John the Baptist had a prophetic hunch that what was going to be required, in future, of every anointed man, woman and child upon the face of the earth was a willingness to “walk the walk” as well, if not better, than they “talk the talk”. And people like you and me were prepared to put life and limb at great risk to go out there into the wilderness to hear that! John the Baptist wasn’t the only guy with a hunch, was he? We’ve a pretty strong sense too that what we need in our broken world is a good dunking in the Jordan. Fresh, cold water. Rise and shine. Smell the coffee. The wilderness is about to break into flower. Which wilderness? Where? Yours. In your heart, for a start. What a character! What a visionary. Who? Ah, come on! YOU …