Following the quest

  • February 19, 2009
Two young women were talking: Andrea a petite blonde and an artist, Kelsey a winsome brunette and a manager.

Andrea told of her longing for a soul mate who would connect with her and love her as she was. She wanted to be a person, to be someone. In a way, she sought salve for the perpetual sense of “not good enough” from her parents’ divorce of long ago. She felt like a ball of anger, sometimes. She also felt like a person with a quest, revealed in art. And a quest for the divine, sensed but unexplored. For Andrea, yearning had tipped into addiction. Her best friend was alcohol; when everybody and everything else failed her, the salve was there. Somewhere down deep she hated this best friend, but it seemed to enable.

Kelsey was married, a mother, with a solid career, many friends, lots of reasons to live. Her yearning was strong but unclear. She’d carried a certain pain a long time, packed down and smouldering. She didn’t let herself think of it much, but every part of her wanted to be free of it. Her quest had gone over into busyness and extreme capability. Work helped keep the inner questions at bay, the pain compartment shut and locked.

What’s your mission, your quest? Do you stop to ask? Are you afraid, like Kelsey, that to look at it will open the pain compartment? How do you find out what’s going on at the root of it? 

The church listens for these inner yearnings, likes us to get to the root, and offers a way — unglamourous, it’s true. The church, following the Spirit, lures us into the desert as Christ was lured there — for us it’s not the physical desert (though there’s a Christian tradition of going to physical desert), but the inner desert. Sometimes life takes us there, involuntarily. An experience of radical pain, or loss, can take us quickly to the desert, where there seems no landscape, no way to quench the thirst, no certainty, no comfort and nobody but our stripped-naked self — the last one we want to be alone with. 

Christianity, following its Master, likes to meet us in that barren place where we sometimes find ourselves. In fact, it deliberately takes us there at least once a year, recommending the desert as a place of growth and life. You might think the church could come up with something a bit more appealing, a southern vacation perhaps, or at least a fitness centre. But this is what it offers.

And the offer is urgent. It begins by marking us for the journey: we wear ashes. It reminds us that everything is offered, everything is asked, now: “I call heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then” (Deuteronomy, Thursday after Ash Wednesday). Then, on the first Sunday of Lent, we are brought into Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert, where He’s tempted by evil.

We are asked to be with Him, and through Him to learn better the boldness and the subtlety of our temptations (as C.S. Lewis observed once, it’s not the person who’s always giving into temptation who understands best what it is, but the person who’s always resisting it and therefore always confronted by it). The tempter works with our yearnings, twisting and manipulating them to lead us away, convincing us we are following the path of happiness.

It’s not Satan, though, whom we came to meet. It’s in the desert we’re able to let go and be met by Someone. The Someone who “probably doesn’t exist,” according to recent bus ads, but who longs for our presence. The One who cherishes us, who created us good; the Someone who “loves each one of us as though there were only one of us” (Augustine).

Why is the desert the place of meeting? When we lose our images of God, we begin to discover the living God, infinitely close to us, ever-ancient and ever-new.

The Lenten desert doesn’t lead to instant clarity. If they follow this way, Andrea and Kelsey’s questions may bring them, for a while, to a place of unknowing. Lent is a long journey, and a big place. The second Sunday takes us up a mountain, our human eyes almost blinded by a glimpse of God-with-us: Christ transfigured. Amid this revelation, God speaks not out of a clear blue sky but out of “bright shadow,” a “cloud of unknowing.” It takes courage to let our yearnings guide us there, we who long for clear answers, clear direction, tangible evidence. We’ll discover what comes at the end of the 40-day, life-long journey, but may be surprised at the answers, or even at what our questions really are.