I have walked in the desert – physically in Qatar, and spiritually. The chief loneliness of both deserts has been to see so large, unending a landscape, without meaningful markers, without boundaries: literally as large as life, for there appears no other.
To sit down (actually or metaphorically) and despair, is to be show something unexpected, and real. The endlessness is made up of grains of reality: tiny particles, each piled on another to create an entire landscape. There is no real ‘nothingness’ – and that understanding begins to change the perception of loss and emptiness.
It is a slow emergence of the sense of interest that sharpens all senses: here is the returning colour, here is the shape of something outlined by light, here is a tiny sign of life…
The different faces of Jesus – how many faces shall we feel driven to discover during this Lent? Shall we hold tightly to the comfortable, familiar, laughing Jesus – the one who celebrated at Canaa’s wedding feast, who slept peacefully in the company of his friends sailing across the Galilean sea, who was called a glutton by those scandalised that he would choose to eat and drink with ‘sinners’…. or seek and explore another face of Jesus, companion of the lost and those society had cast aside. He was no desert ascetic like his cousin John the Baptizer, his choice was not locusts and animal skins, but the good food and company of others.
Yet we may never doubt that he was tempted: those temptations to trade his ministry for the easy popularity of a public speaker; or to heed Peter’s demands that he should pass up the cup of his coming sacrifice: the ultimate temptation even to doubt God, as he hung in torment on the cross.
Tempted – but not sinning.
As we struggle – as we must – with doubts, and find more darkness than light, we can remember that Jesus kept faith – even in the lonely chaos of his temptation – holding the image of God, the understanding of presence, even in the long slow agony of death: crying out to the One who could never desert him.
We have sought our way through Lent again, yet it is always as if for the first time, tracing a journey from the desert, from the arid exhaustion of our questions, into a more concentrated space where God’s voice is heard afresh, where we are encouraged to listen… and to be astonished.
So we approach Holy Week, and it is as if entering an intense silence: a slow and introspective journey in our Lord’s footsteps, eyes focussed on the here and now – and not on the glory to come: which is still waiting to overwhelm us, too great to contemplate.
Tentative, dreading the Friday that lies ahead – slow and introspective because that beloved voice asks us also to listen and to hear. For so long we have searched… in books, through preachers, thinking, and reflecting others’ thoughts: absorbed in the question “Who do they say he is?”
And now we hear that voice, gently, insistently; “but who do YOU say that I am?”
At the beginning of Holy Week the time for us to answer …is: now.
We are stripped bare; our everyday lives (found wanting) have been laid aside – old worn-out clothing, patched, inadequate – and we are waiting in the shadow to be clothed in light.
At our most vulnerable, all stripped down to what we really are. And, at the moment when all is most truly lost, inconsolable … we find ourselves suddenly so utterly loved and protected, so absolutely beloved, so held in the shadow of His wings…
(Psalm 17:8, Psalm 91:4)
A small chalk-stream, narrowed by overgrowths of watercress, flows unsteadily between two fields. In the spring air, a sparkle, a tiny firework – almost missed – skimming low: the kingfisher.
Eye is not deceived though mind says: surely kingfishers are large as thrushes? But this is as small as a sparrow; as vivid as any spark exploding from a burning log, and indescribably blue.
If I lived in the white cottage beside the stream, I should find myself drawn irresistibly to the window, all day, in the hope … and yet, knowing that the urgency of wanting was not enough.
Something becomes possible in Lent: this waiting, and breath-held longing, is shaken out of focus. Words on the page become suspended, untranslatable; space between time opens up for us. Through music, beyond stillness, the intention of Lent leads us imperceptibly closer to God. . .
But … like the kingfisher, the moment of transfixing brightness comes without warning: we can only wait: accepting that we cannot cause this through the power of will, nor the insistence of desire, but only, paradoxically, through the suspension of will.
And the meaning, as it will always be, lies in the waiting…
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
the sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Taken from RS Thomas, Collected Poems, 1945-1990