First Sunday of Lent
The other day I was at the First Alternative Co-op doing some shopping, and I could feel the carrot cake calling me from the cold case. I’ve given up desserts for Lent—I’ve given up all sugar—but the co-op has the best cake in town, and I really wanted some.
And the devil came up behind me, and he whispered in my ear: “Oh come on. Giving up sugar for Lent? That’s so old-fashioned. So conventional. Why don’t you give up a feeling instead, or an attitude? Go ahead. You know you want it.”
And I hesitated. I reached out my hand.
But then I stopped. I pulled back. I thought, “no. Scripture says that one does not live by bread alone.”
A day or so later I got an email from a student complaining about my comments on a paper. He was questioning my judgment and my authority, in no uncertain terms, and I could feel myself getting angry.
And the devil came up behind me, and he whispered in my ear. “Go ahead. You know what you want to say. Say it. Say, ‘who do you think you are? I was teaching before you were even born.’ Go ahead. You’re the one with the power here. Let him have it.”
And I reached out. My fingers hovered over the keyboard.
But then I pulled back. I thought, no. Jesus didn’t call us to power and authority in this sense, and certainly not to cruelty, especially with those who are weaker than we are and more vulnerable. “Scripture says you shall worship the Lord, your God,”not position, not prestige.
The next day the devil came to me a third time.
I was walking in the woods, and it was gray and muddy and wet. I was slogging up the trail, as I’d been slogging through the days. I was exhausted. Irritable.
And the devil came up behind me, and he whispered in my ear, “how can there be a God when life is so tedious and hard? How can there be a God when life is so empty?”
“Make him prove that he exists. Tell him that he has to give you a sign, right now, or you won’t believe in him anymore. Maybe an angel. Maybe a burning bush. A flower, at least. The sun through the clouds. Something.”
And he had a point. I walked with that for a while.
But then I stopped. I thought, “scripture says, you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” There are miracles enough, every day. They’re small. They’re fleeting. But who are we to ask for more? Who are we to demand that God give us something obvious, something easy?
And the devil departed from me, for a time.
Of course, too often I do get the cake, and pay it for it afterwards, with the sugar-high and the sugar-crash. I do send the email, and spend days trying to undo the damage. I do begin to doubt, to long for the verifiable, and so ignore all the beauty around me. Without Jesus, without his grace, I can do nothing, and part of the point of Lent is not just for us to make our resolutions and to try our hardest to keep them but to become more aware of how often we fail, how easily we are caught up and misdirected, again and again.
And let me say this, too.
I think there’s a version of the three temptations besieging us all now, or a lot of us, one that’s not hard to understand.
In a way the Church is in the wilderness, and we have to face that. We have to face the recent scandals, the terrible scandals, and we have to stand for the victims, and we have to work for real, substantial change. But the temptation is to think about these things so much, to get so caught up in our anger and our shame, that we fail to see all the ways that God is still present in the Church and in our lives. The temptation is to get lost in abstractions.
A friend of mine, a wise and spiritual man, told me recently that he only wants to talk about the scandals and the Church in the abstract, the Church structurally, about ten per cent of the time. We could talk about the scandals for hours, he says, and everything we said would be true. But where would that get us?
What he really wants to talk about is grace.
Tell me, he says, what’s one sweet thing that God has done for you this month, this week, this moment?
That’s when the devil goes away from me, when I ask this question, and when I answer it. Because I can, when I really stop and think: I felt the presence of God when I reading a novel, I felt the presence of God when I was watching a movie, I felt the presence of God when I was talking on the phone—and this is just in the last few days.
And I’m no mystic. I’m as thick-headed as anybody else, and God still gets through to me now and then. He’s always trying to. He’s always reaching out to us, to all of us.
One afternoon I was sitting in the living room, and I could feel a kind of quiet, a kind of peace, in the air of the room, and I knew what it was. I knew who it was.
And I just sat there for a few minutes, letting it seep into me. I was just there.
This is the point of our Lenten practices, not to make us suffer but to sharpen our awareness. When we empty ourselves, we can be filled. When we can die to ourselves, we can serve others. When we spend time in silence, when we just stop, we can hear the Lord speaking.
This is what Jesus understands in the wilderness: that the wilderness itself is grace. All is grace. The devil can’t offer him anything: he has it all. There’s nothing more he needs.
My dear souls, says the seventeenth century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade,
you are seeking for secret ways of belonging to God, but there is only one: making use of whatever he offers you. Everything leads you to this union with him. The blood flowing through your veins moves only by his will. Every feeling and every thought you have, no matter how they arise, all come from God’s invisible hand. You have nothing to do but love and cherish what each moment brings.