The Lenten story starts with the wilderness, and most people’s first reaction is probably something like, “ooh, wouldn’t want to go there.” Maybe all the more for us denizens of Berkhamsted, because it’s the name of that litter-strewn alley behind Tesco where you’re likely to bump into furtive public schoolboys bunking off for a naughty fag. And I suppose Jesus did have more to worry out in his wilderness than a couple of shifty teenagers: he bumped into the Devil. So I can see why the wilderness gets a bit of rap.
But I want us to think about the wilderness in a different way, a more positive way. I mean, why did Jesus go out there in the first place? It’s not as if he was forced to. OK, he was guided by the Holy Spirit, but generally, we think that’s quite a good thing, don’t we? And we should, because Jesus, the Gospel tells us, went out into the wilderness with a good reason: to pray.
You know, there are times when I could really use a bit of wilderness. Times when someone else’s mobile phone is blaring music out on the tube, times when I’m being bombarded with light and noise in Tesco, times when I’m being suffocated by crowds on Oxford Street. Or times when the noise and images and suffocation aren’t coming from outside, but are all just in my head: times when I’m racing around to get to the next appointment, get the next task done. In other words, more often than not. Quite a lot of the time, I just want to make for open space, “run to the hills,” as it were.
Now we could call our busy-ness a symptom of modern living, but that’s probably just an excuse. We may live in a particularly noisy age, but the temptation to keep ourselves comfortably busy and avoid the scary wilderness is nothing new. There’s a story about a 4th century Abbot in Egypt called Arsenius. It’s said that he one day heard a voice saying, ‘come and I will show you the works of men.’ So off he went, and the voice led him to a forest grove. An Ethiopian was cutting wood and making a pile. But the pile was too heavy for him to carry off. Of course, what you’d do is take some of the pile off and carry it bit-by-bit; but this Ethiopian just kept cutting more wood and adding it to the pile. As you’d expect, he had even less chance of lifting it now, but still he kept trying, struggling, failing, and adding more wood to the pile.
And that, thought Arsenius, is exactly what we’re doing. Now, in case you’re wondering what some hermit knows about being busy, I should point out that before he absconded to Egypt, he had been a Roman senator, the equivalent of one of our MPs. He knew what life in politics and business was all about. And isn’t his message frighteningly true even now, seventeen hundred years later, when we’re still piling things up – wealth, respectability, commitments – all these things that we struggle so hard to carry, and still keep struggling even harder to keep delivering. Seventeen centuries ago, Arsenius knew far better than we do how keeping ourselves busy consuming and producing can be a substitute for facing the deeper realities of life – a substitute for going into the wilderness.
Now, before I go on, can I just check that there are no devil-worshippers here? Oh, good. In the spirit of good interfaith relations, I wouldn’t want to say anything that might offend the local Satanist community. But I’m afraid I’m not going to mince words about the Devil. I’ve said that I often long for the wilderness, I’ve said that the wilderness is somewhere we all need to go, but we have to remember whom Jesus found in the wilderness when he went out there to pray. I bet some of you were thinking, “ah, here he goes again about entering silence and finding inner peace.” Well, I hope I can surprise you. Because actually, when you do find your wilderness, when you do take time to enter into deep silence, you very rarely find yourself face-to-face with God in perfect oneness and harmony. There’s always someone else there, trying to get in the way. Nagging at you that you’re wasting your time – shouldn’t you be busy feeding the hungry? Is this time with God going help you turn stones into bread? Nagging at you that it’s all a fairy tale anyway – go on, throw yourself off a building and see if your God will save you. But worst, by far, the whispering promise: that you can have everything if you just turn from God and bend the knee. Bend the knee to money, to fame, to sex, pick your addiction of choice, tailor made for you (suits you, sir!) and all this painful wilderness will just go away. There’s probably no God anyway, so stop worrying. Bend the knee, and you can have total happiness, total freedom, total power. Just bend the knee to me, and you can have everything you’ve dreamed of, says the Prince of Lies.
This and every Lent we are called to stride out into the wilderness with Jesus and wrestle with our demons. A good start to this is Abbot Christopher Jamison’s book, “Finding Sanctuary.” It’s also a path you can walk with others on our weekly Lent course, starting this Wednesday, when we will explore the Eucharist through traditional ways of prayer. But it’s important that Lent reading and Lent courses do not get in the way of Lent praying. They mustn’t become yet another seduction away from the wilderness itself. So if you have time to do just one thing this Lent, then make it this: put an hour or half-hour slot in your diary each week to spend in absolute silence before God. Don’t worry about techniques, just make sure you keep that slot – religiously, as it were. And when you hear the voice tempting you to skip it or shorten it, give some thought to just who might be whispering in your ear.