There is a large hardware store chain with the slogan, ‘Never stop improving’.
That, it seems, is something that we as Christians are called to in our lives, to ‘never stop improving’; never stop growing in our depth of love for God; never stop growing in our appreciation of the great things God has done in our lives; never stop growing in our desire and ability to serve our neighbors, loving them as we love ourselves.
We are called to continually grow ‘upward’, reaching towards union with God, and drawing others into that union as we journey. In the 1600’s, a lay Carmelite monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, considered by many to be a spiritual classic. Brother Lawrence wrote that if we are not moving forward in the spiritual life, we are actually moving backwards; once we enter into that relationship with God, we can’t simply stand still and accept the mediocre – it is a relationship that by its very nature demands that we grow and progress and deepen. Imagine being in love with another person and saying to the object of our affection, ‘Okay, I kind of love you – so this is how much I am going to love you– just this little bit and no more – then I can focus more on myself’. I’m pretty confident that a relationship like that would sour and die pretty quickly.
But the serious relationship with God deepens and evolves and moves forward; and to do that, we are called to prepare our own hearts to grow in their ability to be open to and embrace the will of God, and to follow where Jesus leads us.
In this Sunday’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus leads us into the desert, into the wilderness – St. Mark says the Spirit ‘drove’ Him into the wilderness, implying that the need for Jesus to withdraw from the ‘busy-ness’ of everyday life to commune uninterrupted with God was overwhelming. But this was not simply a vacation, or an end in itself. There was a reason for Jesus to leave the concerns of this world behind and move into the desert to prepare for the start of His public ministry.
He had to, as they say, ‘withdraw for the sake of return.’
Jesus shows how with the desert experience, great things happen. After setting aside the comforts and unnecessary distractions of daily life, Jesus begins his public ministry; after battling temptations and physical demands– He emerges and ‘proclaims’ the ‘time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’
While the season of Lent is a time for us to prepare for Easter, it is also a metaphor for our journey as pilgrim souls, all making our way back to God.
We don’t spend more time in prayer simply to give up our spare time…or give up ‘things’, simply for the sake of giving things up…we set some things aside that are luxuries to us, that we simply don’t really need for survival. Where they become a problem is when we mistake those things that are ‘extras’, as ‘essentials’ that we can’t do without; things that become a priority over and above God and each other.
During Lent we often focus on the ‘withdrawing’ or ‘giving up’ of things as a negative, as a sacrifice to suffer through; but that is focussing too much on the ‘sacrifices’ as an end in themselves. The purpose is to ‘withdraw’ from distractions, or ‘remove’ unnecessary things that have become unnecessarily important in our lives – things that really do nothing in building up our relationship either with God or with others.
Being in the wilderness , in the desert, really puts into perspective the difference between necessities and ‘extras’ – it is a time that one can very clearly see what is truly needed to sustain life. Computer tablets and video games are great, but you can’t eat them. Luxury items are nice, but they don’t provide fire for warmth or light.
In one sense, this movement into the wilderness by Jesus is given to us as an example; a separation from all the ‘busy-ness’ and materialism that creeps into our daily lives, and clouds our clear view of our path towards God. He goes into an area where there is nothing in order to hear the Father speaking to Him, a place free from distraction and noise. When he is ready, Jesus emerges from that wilderness – not in a quiet and tranquil complacency – He emerges ‘proclaiming’ the message of repentance, of believing the Good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. He is convicted, and boldly proclaims this Truth.
The Season of Lent gives us each that opportunity to enter somehow into our own desert experience, into our own wilderness. That varies for each of us, and for some it may be a retreat – for others more time in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament – for yet others it may be something as simple as an extra five to ten minutes a day in prayer or reading Scripture; but in all of these, we enter into a brief sense of ‘wilderness’, a sense of reduced distractions and obstructions, so that we can more clearly hear God’s voice in our lives. Then like Jesus, we can emerge from that wilderness with a greater sense of God’s presence in our lives.
When we are truly convinced of God’s presence in our lives, then it’s not a sacrifice at all to continue on our Lenten journey. It grows as a desire to ‘never stop improving’ with Christ.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!