Some years ago I was visiting a North African town sixty miles from Alexandria called El Alamein. Judy's father had fought in the battle in 1943 and we were able to visit the place. We went round the museum then paid our respects to those who lie in the huge cemetery nearby. When it was over, I stood beside the road and looked out across the desert beyond it. It was burning hot and utterly desolate, stretching hundreds of miles beyond the horizon. It occurred to me that it might have been like that when we read of Our Lord going into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and forty nights by the devil. I have never visited the Holy Land and I do not want to because I prefer to hold the Bible story in my mind rather than seeing what it is really like now. But looking towards that desert brought this incident very close to mind.
This season of Lent which we associate with Christ in the wilderness begins with Ash Wednesday on February 14; it continues for the rest of the month and throughout March. I wonder what really happened in the wilderness. Jesus knew He had to perform His ministry; there was this inner compulsion that He could not resist. The question was HOW? I wonder if we could think of the temptation in the context of going into a quiet place to think things out rather than meeting a physical tempter. He had to prepare Himself spiritually for the task that lay ahead. But He was practical; He had to plan ahead. So, l envisage Him going into this lonely place to meditate.
The temptations took the form of what the psychiatrists call 'intrusive thoughts'. He is hungry and round stones look like bread rolls; He could change stones into bread and feed the hungry, getting a popular following who He could then teach. He sees a distant village with its huge synagogue; if He jumps from the top, He can float to the ground protected by the angels, thus getting a crowd because people love the sensational – again He can teach them. Finally, there is the ultimate temptation, that of compromise. Lower His sights a bit, connive with the Establishment, have lower standards, play safe. The temptations in the wilderness are therefore rooted in doing the wrong thing for the right reason. They need not involve actually appearances with a devil, but they are just as real.
Perhaps this may be a different way of looking at a much loved Gospel story in a different way, but if so, that is me (once again!) thinking outside the box and challenging the orthodox. If so, it may help us to take a different attitude to Lent. For just as Our Lord needed to go into the wilderness so we need our own periods of quiet to ponder; and just as Christ often withdrew for meditation so we need similar times just to think. Not necessarily formally but pausing for short times. Thinking about such things as spiritual priorities – or how we might deepen our awareness of God – or whether our spiritual discipline can be deepened – or in any number of other things. Silence can be the most life affirming thing, the most intense experience. 'What is life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?' wrote the poet W.H. Davies. What indeed?
So, my mind goes back to another very different wilderness, high above Buttermere in the Lake District fifty years ago, on the Sunday after Easter. Brilliant sunshine, total silence, and one of the most glorious views in England. God had never been closer than He was that day. We need our wildernesses; we need our wilderness experiences. We need to let God into our busy lives – and be still with Him.
With my love,