St. Mary of the Angels
Over a hundred and fifty years ago, -- in 1845, to be exact, -- Henry David Thoreau began his two year experiment of
living at the edge of Walden Pond in Concord.
At one point in his journal he explained why he did so: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover
that I had not lived.” His words, especially those last words, “…when
I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” have always spoken to my spirit.
I, too, do not want to arrive at the end of my life having simply “visited this world,” as poet, Mary Oliver,
has expressed it. I always sense that there is still a deeper journey which God
desires for me. I need to take time to search for it. I have even dreamt of living
as Thoreau lived for those two years but know this is my romantic, egoistic imagination. In reality, I could never endure what he did.
Though the cabin that Thoreau built was only a mile and a half from home, it was a very, very small and simple cabin
(as you can see from the replica at Walden) and for those two years he lived a very rigorous life close to the earth. There, by the lake he observed carefully all the nature around him, noted the day
by day changes in each season, and recorded his discoveries of birds and berries. He became one of the earliest writers on
ecology and environment so that, in time, he inspired others, like Rachel Carson, to lament the wanton destruction of our
natural world. And he inspired giants, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther
King, JR. to meet tyranny with non-violent resistance. All this developed because
he took time to go “to the woods, … to front the essential facts of life.”
Was he led there by the Spirit? I am sure that all he would claim is that
he followed his own spirit and his spirit led him to the woods. But we know that
it is in our deepest desires that the Holy Spirit meets our spirit. And there, in the woods, Thoreau gained a knowledge and
wisdom that had to come from God. There, unknowingly, he became a prophet to
his generation and to ours.
In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus, long before, was led by his spirit, God’s Spirit, not into woods,
but into a desert. There, He, too, fronted “the essential facts of life.” He did it in absolute simplicity. He did it with long prayer and severe fasting. In that desert He glimpsed the unfolding of his journey. And, in that desert, He fronted
the strongest temptations against fidelity to that journey. He rejected privilege (food at his bidding). He rejected power (conquering the world) and He rejected fame (a spectacular rescue by angels). He reaffirmed himself as our brother by accepting all the limitations of what it means to be human, letting
go of divine power and privilege. He learned that his journey to bring life would
pass through death. Even God, in Jesus, had to die.
Every human journey passes through death. We know that. Karl Rahner has
said that we spend our lives learning how to die, that is, we must be constantly dying to our selfish ego, to pride, to pretentions,
to false values, to all the baggage that pulls us away from being who we are in our humanity, made to the image and likeness
In one way or another, it is good at some time to enter into woods or desert in order to touch that deeper part of
our being human, the awareness that we are truly made and loved as we are. We
enter woods or desert because, as the French novelist, Leon Bloy has written: “There are places in the heart which do
not yet exist and into them enters suffering that they may have existence.” That
it is another way of saying that the sacrifices we make and the sufferings we endure expand the capacity of our hearts for
love, for freedom, for joy, for life.
Our Church wisely invites us for these forty days of Lent to enter an inner woods or desert, either alone or with the community, to look at our own journey as Jesus looked at his. Are we, too, being led by the Spirit into this sacred space and time? Is the Spirit inviting us to reflect
on the essential facts of our life, which might be summarized as: 1) our relationship with God, 2) our relationship with ourselves,
and 3) our relationship with our neighbor, with one another.
Our relationship with God stirs us to prayer, more intentional prayer. Would God like to have a longer, more intimate conversation with us?
Our relationship with our self invites us to some fasting, some sort of symbolic emptying out what most hinders the
deeper movements in our life. What might fasting look like? A favorite food, a TV program, computer games or internet, some attachment?
Our relationship with our neighbor moves us to forgiveness and almsgiving. Almsgiving
comes in many forms: good deeds, acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, an encouraging word, aid to the poor. A bumper sticker suggests, “Practice random acts of kindness.”
We will never have the two years woods experience of Thoreau.
We will never have the 40 day desert experience of Jesus.
But we can choose to enter these forty days of Lent in a similar spirit because it is the same Spirit that leads us. And that Spirit desires the most abundant life for all of us.
That Spirit, as we proclaim in the Creed, is the very “Giver of life.”
What is the life this Lent that the Spirit wants to give especially to you and to me?