Desert Journeys 33
April 14th 2017
This poem was written by the Anglican priest and army chaplain Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, known affectionately by the troops during WW1 as ‘Woodbine Willie’. It reflects the period of disillusion which followed the war, a time of economic downturn and unemployment coupled with rising secularism and materialism. Today, on Good Friday, the saddest day of the Christian year, it still resonates strongly.
by G.A. Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929)
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
Bertrand Olivier, All Hallows By The Tower
Desert Journeys 32
April 13th 2017
Nearly at the culmination of our Lenten desert journey with Christ, Holy Week is a smorgasbord of activities, and Maundy Thursday is the real beginning of the roller coaster which takes us to the height of emotions before plummeting into the abyss of Good Friday.
For bishops, clergy and lay ministers, the day starts in the cathedral for the Chrism Mass – a Eucharist where oils used for the sacraments throughout the year are blessed by the Bishop, and where the gathered ministers lay and ordained reaffirm their commitment to ministry.
Maundy Thursday liturgies later in the day include a re-enactment of Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet – challenging traditional leadership values – before the sharing in the last supper and the waiting in the garden. As we enter into these liturgies, we may feel overwhelmed by the sense of love and impending loss, the absurdity of Jesus’ journey – yet feel absolutely powerless to change it all.
In this singular journey with Christ, we enter the desert of the soul, and we are called to empty ourselves of our own desires that we may be filled with divine grace.
On Maundy Thursday, the shadow of the cross seems still far away, yet it is just around the corner. Can we bear to watch and wait, even for one hour?
Vicar, All Hallows by the Tower
Desert Journeys 31
April 12th 2017
Within the wider journey of Lent, Holy Week is the time when our direction of travel is concentrated, focussed on the central events of the Christian story. This is a time when we really need to commit to the journey, because the powerful liturgies of Holy Week ask us to walk alongside Jesus all the way from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death on the cross and burial.
These are not events at which we are just spectators, armchair travellers watching in safety from afar: we are asked to inhabit the story ourselves, actually to participate in this great drama of our faith. So just as the crowds in Jerusalem did, we wave our palms, sing Hosannas and process outside in the spring sunshine on Palm Sunday; like the disciples we submit shamefacedly to having our feet washed; we share with Jesus in the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; and we try to watch and pray with him late into the evening in the garden, tempted perhaps to fall asleep and aware of our own massive limitations in the face of his courage and faith.
On Good Friday, the journey focusses down even further. For centuries people have traced Jesus’ actual footsteps along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem as he carried his cross to Golgotha, and many more have joined them in spirit by following the stations of the cross around their church or parish. There is something profoundly important about being physically involved in Passiontide, I think because it reminds us of our own part in Jesus’ death, and the implications this has for our future. In the parish in Gloucestershire where I serve part-time, we have our own ‘green hill far away’, known locally as Cam Peak, and each Good Friday a procession from churches of all denominations carries a heavy, life-size cross two miles from the town centre and past various ‘stations’ to its summit. It’s a stiff climb, but each year around 300 people make it to the top to pray at the foot of the cross, a reminder that, as Rowan Williams has put it ‘God’s future is alive here and now, and it is us’.
Associate Priest, All Hallows by the Tower and
Associate Priest, Cam with Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire
Desert Journeys 30
April 11th 2017
Many cultures and faiths other than Christianity feature stories or traditions of people stepping away from home and going off into the wilderness, often to commune with something greater or divine.
The aborigines of Australia walk the Songlines across thousands of miles, the Native Americans seclude themselves in a natural environment on Vision Quests, and the story of the Buddha reports that he left a life of luxury and meditated under the Bodhi tree for 49 days before achieving enlightenment.
In our ‘always on’ lifestyle, where smartphones and emails constantly connect us to the 24-hour cycle of updates and newsfeeds, and where the ethos is often to add and complicate rather than to subtract and simplify, it’s both challenging and appealing to think about unplugging ourselves from the constant churn of input, and to allow the natural world around us to be heard.
Forty days and nights of fasting in the desert isn’t feasible for most of us (many employers allow flexible working now, but wi-fi tends to be hard to come by in places where the view to the horizon is nothing but sand), but it’s nonetheless possible to get away from it all, even if only on a temporary basis; in recent years, the idea of a ‘digital detox’ has been gaining in popularity, and whilst it might be beyond some of us to go an entire day without checking email or social media, simple steps like not checking email before breakfast can be seen as a small victory, a way of fighting the temptation to allow a distraction to become an addiction.
Similarly, physically taking oneself away from everyday locations can allow for refreshed insight – a change, they say, is as good as a rest. A lunchbreak spent in a nearby park instead of eating a sandwich at your desk, or even taking a moment to look up, at the sky, instead of down at a smartphone, can provide us with a micro-retreat – a small speck of comfort, perhaps, but then again the biggest desert is made up accumulated grains of sand.
In his popular philosophy book The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff points out that “if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than any other time in history”, and yet we often hear about our ‘busy modern lifestyle’, one in which it seems that we have no time to stop and think, or to walk in nature – we have things to prepare for, plans to make, and things to do.
And yet as the time of his passion drew close, Jesus made a point of taking himself away from everyday life to reflect and prepare for the days to come; if this was the case for Him, how much more so would our lives benefit from us breaking from routine to think, reflect, and pray?
Desert Journeys 29
April 10th 2017
I have been privileged to travel widely in my life. I have seen majestic mountains, green valleys covered in wildflowers, awe-inspiring waterfalls, animals of every size and shape, and oceans teeming with fantastically coloured coral and fish.
But one of my favourite areas of beauty is the desert. I have wept for joy at a breath-taking sunset. I have been lost for words at the intricacy of limestone formations. I have laughed with exhilaration, racing over massive sand dunes on a quad bike.
We often use the desert as a metaphor for difficult times, loneliness or solitude. Indeed, all of these have their place, and God can teach us much, and show us his power and faithfulness in them.
Lent can be like that. It reminds us of the sadness of Jesus’ journey to the Cross; of the seriousness of our failures which demanded his sacrifice; of the wretchedness of life without the grace of God.
But the desert can also be a place of life and growth, of amazing discovery, of adventure and celebration.
And Lent can be the same—as we read our Bibles, give more time to prayer, live generously and spend time with the people of God, we can be enriched in faith, encouraged in hope and excited by all that God can do in and through our lives each day as we give ourselves into his hands.
In Philippians 4, Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord. I love the way Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message: Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!
Let’s make Lent not only a time of reflection, but also a time of rejoicing—beauty in the desert.
Desert Journeys 28
April 7th 2017
Prison as a desert journey…
Imagine yourself in war-torn Germany in April 1943, being hauled off to prison by the Nazis, not knowing the charges against you, much less how long your imprisonment might last. How would you feel? How would you react?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th century provides fascinating insight into this scenario in his book, Letters from Prison.
…People outside find it difficult to imagine what prison life is like. The situation in itself – that is each single moment – is perhaps not so very different here from anywhere else; I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell… The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do…and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontent.
(Bethe, Eberhard, ed., 1981. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. London: SCM Classics. p. 4)
Does Bonhoeffer’s early desert wisdom carry him through his two years of incarceration? The intimacy of his personal writings to family and friends, and the faith to which they testify, makes compelling reading. Immerse yourself in his desert journey.
(Bonhoeffer was martyred on 9 April 1945)
Lay minister, St Anne’s Lutheran Church
Desert Journeys 27
April 6th 2017
The desert has many teachings
In the desert,
Turn toward emptiness,
Fleeing the self.
Stand alone, Ask no one’s help,
And your being will quiet,
Free from the bondage of things.
Those who cling to the world,
Endeavour to free them;
Those who are free, praise.
Care for the sick, But live alone,
Happy to drink from the waters of sorrow,
To kindle Love’s fire With the twigs of a simple life.
Thus you will live in the desert.
This lovely little poem was written by Mechthild of Magdeburg who was born around 1208 and died in 1282 at the convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt. For about 40 year she lived and worked as a Beguine in Magdeburg.
Mechtild’s theological works were written in vernacular German and not in Latin. She sometimes referred to a divine authorisation for her mission and her criticism of church dignitaries, religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that there were calls for her writing to be burned.
In the context of a simple, solitary existence in the desert, Mechtild identifies, in this poem, the virtues of caring for the sick and freeing those who seek to cling to the world. The poem praises the goal in living in an imaginary desert and how this might be achieved. The language of the poem beautifully captures the simplicity of desert life – the phrase “the twigs of a simple life” is particularly powerful.
The messages from the 13th. Century of seeking freedom from the bondage of things and breaking the bonds that cause us to cling on the world seems remarkably prescient today. The simply expressed insights into desert life and the parallels which are drawn identify this poem as a particularly appropriate to study and ponder during Lent.
Desert Journeys 26
April 5th 2017
Lent. Time of desert and purification. Time of silence and temptation. Jesus went to the desert for forty days, fasting and being closer to his Father. He alone. Trying to listen more carefully to his voice, to create a space for himself and for God the Father, trying to better understand what he was going to experience during his Passion.
Desert Journeys 25
April 4th 2017
On my journey as an artist I often feel rather lost, as in a desert wilderness. I can be plagued by self-doubt, unclear of which path to take and starved of inspiration and direction.
The work I always turn to when floundering in such quicksands is Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. I first saw an image of this sculpture in a book at school and it affected me profoundly. I later saw the sculpture ‘in the flesh’ and was deeply moved by it. A version is displayed in the gardens west of the Houses of Parliament in London.
The work commemorates the heroism of the six Burghers of Calais who were willing to give up their lives to save the French port of Calais from siege during the Hundred Years War.
Such self-sacrifice is tenderly yet harrowingly depicted in the work; the figures’ expressions and gestures are anguished and melancholic, rather than self-glorifyingly heroic.
The six burghers were eventually spared execution, thanks to the intervention of Edward III’s wife Philippa.
This work that speaks so powerfully of the wilderness of self-sacrifice often serves to steer me through my own creative desert. That a work of art can have such a profound affect redirects me to the path of making again, however rocky that route can be.