In many of the world’s religions deserts are places where those seeking spiritual wisdom have travelled in pursuit of enlightenment, or to deepen their sense of self-knowledge. And of course, during Lent we are invited to participate, in our own very different way, in the sojourn that Jesus himself endured for forty days in the Judean wilderness, at the very start of his ministry.
For those of us who live in the middle of a great city, who have no choice but to spend the season of Lent within it, that raises interesting questions about how we can recreate or get in touch with that kind of ‘desert experience’. Because it is certainly possible, even here in the very heart of the city of London. Indeed it can be very important that we do – that we manage to find that kind of challenging and nurturing spiritual ‘space’. Indeed, the Italian writer on spirituality, Carlo Coretto, went so far as to say, ‘We must create a desert in the heart of crowded places’ for that very reason.
One clergyman who has reflected deeply on such themes, who is also a near neighbour of ours – just down the road at St Martin in the Fields – is Richard Carter. He not only writes about the city in monastic terms as a context in which we can deepen and develop our spiritual roots, but also as a place that needs healing – and he reflects on the role of the church and its ministry within that. Writing back in 2019 at a time when we were facing profound challenges, albeit pre-pandemic and pre- the Ukraine conflict, he said this in his book The City is my Monastery: A Contemporary Rule of Life:
The city, more than ever, is in need of God’s love. The city is God’s just as much as the hills and valleys. Perhaps even more so, for it is filled to bursting with those made in God’s image, and among them many in poverty in whom we are told Christ is especially present. St Martin-in-the Fields discovered its narrative in the horror of the First World War – it became a place of belonging, the place that the dispossessed could call home, the place they learnt again of the love of God after the horror of the trenches.
Now in the crisis our world faces, a crisis of identity and belonging, a crisis where once again people both fear the violence in our midst and want to turn inwards and return to a national identity that does not exist, is it not now more than ever that we must reimagine the kingdom of God – a kingdom truly worth living for? Is it now that the church with the open door for all is needed, a place of discovery and hope, offering prayers for our city and nation: a church at heart and on the edge.
I sense within myself, more than ever, not the need to do more, but actually to be [more] still. The need for the monastic values in the centre of the city – for sacred space, for people to come and replenish tired, stressful or simply busy lives. To provide space for silence. To become an oasis of the Spirit. Not simply to be managers organizing resources and events, but those who seek God: to be men and women of contemplation and prayer, who know their utter dependence on God’s grace; those who believe that God is incarnated in our lives and whose vocation is to make a place and a space for that presence.
How can I or others do this? How can we do it without being depleted or running dry […] the good news is that we do not do this, we simply prepare the space for God to be with us. We create a sacred space, a Nazareth in the centre of the city – the pattern that allows us to be present.
Richard Carter then describes the kind of ‘discipline’ which he defines, interestingly enough, as a ‘deeper listening’ that can help us to allow the river of God’s love to flow. He identifies the following precepts as part of this:
Live more prayerfully
Live more holistically
Live [more] slow[ly]
Live more gently with others and with self
Live with more space for silence and solitude
Live generously and hospitably
Live with an attentiveness to God, to creation and to neighbour
Live with a greater recognition of God in all things
Learn from the community of others
Rediscover a poverty of spirit that lets go of ambition and self-interest and look for Christ where he was found during his life – on the edge among the lost
Rediscover the gift of peace at the very centre of all that you do.
Somewhere within the heart of all of this, is a way into that desert experience that is the true essence of Lent. An experience that is not about self-denial for the sake of it, but rather a way of discovering what living is truly all about, by relinquishing all the things that get in the way of that.
Lent is not simply a challenge – it is also a gift.