Someone once said to Fr Benson, ‘I suppose your object in founding the Society of St John the Evangelist was to train clergymen who join you for the work of Mission’, ‘No’ replied Fr. Benson ‘I do not think the object of our association in a Religious community is to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves’.
We often forget that conversion is not something in the past or in the future – although it could be both – but most importantly it is now.
In today’s Gospel Jesus goes out into the desert wilderness for forty days – and we too have entered the 40 days of Lent during which we are going to follow together with the Society of St John the Evangelist in their prayer guide ‘Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John’. The short daily quotes from John’s Gospel and epistles are wonderful but ideally you need to watch the videos that the brothers have recorded, one a day each lasting about three and a half minutes. If you don’t have access to a computer, then we will be playing a selection of the videos at our meeting on Tuesday evenings in Lent. But I want to give you a flavour of the first week of talks now, as well as saying a bit about today’s Gospel.
The theme for this first week of Lent from the ‘Meeting Jesus’ course is ‘God is Love’. But I want to just begin for a moment with this theme of the desert. It might be helpful to think about what we are doing with Lent by thinking briefly about the desert. To be in the desert can mean to be in a place where all the superfluous things are stripped away, a place of erosion, of crumbling, a place of vulnerability. And may be if we are gong to enter the place of prayer we need to begin here. Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him’ – so Beasts (the frightening, disturbing things are with us in this place) but also angels – the things that care for and nurture us.
Two key words might be exposure and enclosure. In the desert we are exposed to the reality of our vulnerability, our brokenness but we are also enclosed in the knowledge that we are loved – the voice form Heaven says to Jesus ‘you are my son the beloved’.
The desert is a place of truth and honesty, its not a place for pretence – ‘the desert strips you bare’ says Jerome. Two things we will need with us during out time on the desert: discernment (so we don’t fall into the extremes of rigid obedience or slack carelessness) and singleness of heart, the desire to know purity of heart, to know God.
Now even as I say these things I realise how ridiculous they are for me at least – I want to watch ‘Take me out’ rather than say compline, I wouldn’t know obedience if it hit me between the eyes but I am a gold medallist at carelessness. But as I speak I realise that again, I lack discernment when I fall too easily into judging myself, into saying, prayer, the religious life is not really for me because I’m not good enough.
So lets begin Lent in the wilderness with these twin guides discernment and singleness of heart. One of the brothers little talks begin with a reflection on 1 John 4.16 – those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.
Apparently, Johns Gospel and Epistles use the word abide 63 times – but what does it mean? And as we enter Lent do we want to abide, or would we rather run away?
The first talk asks us to recollect a bit about ourselves, our birth, our families, those we love – about how we have been helped or hurt, encouraged or discouraged – about the good and the bad. This is our story, and it is the story through which we must read the light and life of God’s love.
God is love and that love is unconditional. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that God loves us. As Brother Curtis comments:
“We cannot imagine that God could or would love us, given the circumstances of our life. We’re not disciplined enough, focused enough, generous enough, forgiving enough, compassionate enough. We’ve got our list of rejections because we find those rejecting qualities inadmissible and unacceptable. We presume that God is blocked out. And yet, I think it’s exactly the opposite: that God will reach through to us in the best of times and God will also reach through to us in the worst of times. And the invitation is not to run away but to stay where we are, which is where God is going to come to meet us, where God’s light and life and love for us will be mediated.”
So the invitation on this first Sunday of Lent is not to run away but just to stay where God’s love, life and light will come to meet us.
And that ‘just staying’ is part of the thing. There is nothing to earn, God’s love is a given reality. And you don’t even have to feel it – When I went on a course about Spiritual Direction my essays kept coming back saying stop saying ‘We’, say ‘I’ a bit more, and I just wanted to say ‘Back off – I’ll do my own stuff, I don’t need you’. But this wasn’t so much self-reliance, as fear about what other people might discover about me, about who the real Phil Ritchie was.
And one of the things I hid behind was a kind of English distain for emotional wallowing. And I still have that – moving too easily from earnestness to careless laughter. But one of the great lessons of the desert, of the spiritual life is that God isn’t just how you feel at any given moment. Be in touch with your feelings but remember God’s love is present through all the scales of our emotions from the bottom B flat through to the top C.
In this first week of Lent our only task is to stay and to open ourselves up to the God of Love. How can we begin to know ourselves as beloved children of God? Let’s ask God to give us the gift of a knowledge of that love for ourselves.
Let me finish with some words – a kind of prayer – from Brother David from day 5 of this weeks talks:
Lord, grant us memories of those times when our fears have been dispelled by the perfect love that casts out fear, by the remembrance of God which has come to us either in our life of prayer or in our relationships with others and we might also bring our present fears before the Father as Jesus brought his fear so that that perfect love which is God, God’s presence, may be imparted to us that we too may glorify God’s name today in ways great and small in ways particular to us…
As we enter the desert of Lent together may our hearts know something of the exposure, the vulnerability of the desert experience but also the enclosure of the kindness of the angels.
And the invitation is to join us on this Lenten Journey with the SSJE Brothers, to be brave enough to write your thoughts in the booklet, to pray and to be honest. That, as Father Benson suggested, we might feel the desire to be converted ourselves, discovering that we have not achieved spiritual heights but rather fallen into a love which was always there, waiting for us to arrive. Amen.