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Being the rather perverse creature that I am, I actually enjoy Lent. I like Lent for the same reason that I like austere and challenging landscapes, places of rugged and desolate beauty - like the wilds of Cumbria, or the coast of Iona, or the Judaean desert.
I like the opportunity that Lent offers us, for a period that is substantial but finite, to step into unfamiliar territory; to try living in a slightly different way; to relinquish some of the trivial and fleeting and distracting pleasures of life, in order to re-connect with the more important things that lie beneath; and, in the process, to discover precisely where we are on life's journey. Are we in control of our desires? Or are they in control of us? And where is God for us at this time? A walk through a bleak and windy landscape can be challenging and exhilarating in equal measure - and precisely the same can be true of the journey through Lent.
Some years ago, I chanced upon a book written by an Anglican nun called Verena Schiller, called A Simplified Life. It is an account of the twenty five years she spent living in total isolation as a hermit in a small wooden cabin, on a remote cliff-top, on the north-west coast of Wales. She had access to a cold tap, a calor gas stove, and a small transistor radio - her only regular contact with the outside world - but she had no telephone, no television, and certainly no internet. She grew her own vegetables, and apart from the occasional long walk across the fields to a local shop to obtain essential provisions, little in the way of human contact.
What initially drew Verena Schiller to embrace this solitary life was a growing sense that she needed to rid herself of clutter and noise - not only the external clutter of material things, but also the internal clutter that we all carry round within us, and the noisy thoughts and concerns that can fill our waking hours. By embracing a radically simple and uncomplicated life, she embarked upon a completely new journey of discovery. A journey that, far from constituting a retreat from the realities of life, in fact brought her face to face with the truth about herself, and also face to face with God, in a way that brought those realities far closer. Completely alone with God, and devoid of all the usual distractions of daily life, which can so easily demand the whole of our attention, and absorb our time and energy, she found that there was nowhere for her to hide. Which, in spiritual terms, proved quite a scary place for her to be at times. It was, if you like, the ultimate Lenten 'desert' experience.
And her calling was a tough one: not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually: at times she felt the pain of acute loneliness and, most difficult of all, moments of terrible self-doubt about the value and the point of what she was doing. And yet what emerged for her out of this experience, was nothing short of revelatory in terms of what she discovered about herself, about God, and about her fellow human beings.
At one point in her book, she says this: 'In everyone there is a solitary centre, and a silent place that longs for attention.' 'In everyone there is a solitary centre, and a silent place that longs for attention.' Now it goes without saying that, there are those of us for whom the experience of silence and solitude is liberating, whereas for others it would constitute the worst form of torture - for the simple reason that we are all wired up very differently. But the underlying point she is making here is, I think, relevant to all of us: namely, that if our inner life is turbulent, then that turbulence will distort our relationships with the world, with other people, and with God. To quote her again: 'The exploration of that which lies within is a necessary part of the exploration of that which is beyond.' For me, the question is therefore, how can each one of us find an appropriate way of undertaking that very personal exploration?
Having read Verena Schiller's book, I found it interesting to revisit the Gospel accounts of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. Jesus, too, felt compelled by the Spirit to leave his ordinary life behind and go into the desert to spend time utterly alone with God. And he, too, experienced the real physical harshness of his environment; he, too, experienced temptation. And he, too, emerged from his time there with a new kind of clarity about the path that lay before him, and the journey that was his to embrace. Because by stilling the other voices around you, you can more readily hear the voice of God.
But how can you tell whether the voice that you are hearing is a voice to which you should be listening? Two of our Bible readings this morning shed interesting light on that very question. In the Garden of Eden, Eve is tempted by the voice of the serpent, suggesting to her that by eating the forbidden fruit, she will acquire the knowledge of good and evil, and so become as God. In our reading from St Matthew's Gospel, Jesus, a starving man, faces first the temptation to use his God-given powers to satisfy his own physical needs by turning stones into bread; secondly, he faces the temptation to use faith to satisfy an arrogant conviction that, whatever he did, God would still save him, in effect rendering God's purposes subservient to his own; and thirdly, the temptation to turn his spiritual power into political power, by turning aside from the worship of God, and worshipping instead the darkness.
What these two biblical stories have in common is that in both of them the voice of temptation is a voice that tantalises the hearers with the prospect of achieving something that ultimately is entirely self-serving. And any course of action driven by that aim, by its very nature, cuts us off from other people, and so separates us from God.
Unlike Verena Schiller, or indeed, John the Baptist, Jesus was not called to spend the whole of his ministry in the wilderness. For him, it was purely a time of preparation for all that would follow; a time of profound testing, and self-discovery. An experience that established beyond all question that, at root, his dedication to following the way of the Lord was absolute, regardless - regardless - of where that path would lead him. And interestingly, throughout the rest of his ministry Jesus would return to solitary and desert places from time to time, to be alone with God, and to reconnect with that experience once more.
Lent is rightly regarded as a challenging season for Christians, but it is important for us to remember what this is for. Lent is emphatically not about self-denial for the sake of it, nor is it about undertaking feats of endurance in order to earn brownie points from a God who regards such things as inherently praiseworthy. Because God is not like that.
Rather, Lent gives us all an opportunity to take the time to attend to our own inner turbulence, in whatever way we find most helpful, so that we can distinguish between the voices that are of God, and those that are not. To look squarely at our priorities, and at the forces that really are in control of our lives.
And above all, to embark upon what can be the most extraordinary journey of growth, and self-discovery, leading us eventually into the astonishing, mind-blowing events of Holy Week and Easter, when we move from desolation to hope; from death to new life.
And in the whole of human existence there can be few journeys more exciting, and more life-transforming, than that.