Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Wilderness: A Lenten Reflection

This is a story from the native American, Comanche tradition, “She-Who-Sits-Alone”.

A terrible time once befell the Comanche people. It was a time of drought. The land was dying and the people were dying too. In their despair, they called upon the Great Spirit.

“Great Spirt,” they implored, “our land is dying and our people are dying. How have we angered you? Bring an end to this drought and save your people, for soon there will be nothing left alive.”

And so they prayed, and they danced. They waited, and they prayed. But no rain came. And the little ones and the old ones suffered, and no one knew how to end the suffering.

But there was one small girl who had not yet died of hunger. Her name was She-Who-Sits-Alone. Sitting alone, she watched her people pray and dance, and she held her beloved doll in her arms. The doll was her ultimate companion, her second self, dressed in its warrior clothing, with a bone belt and beaded leggings, and bearing the feathers of the blue jay on its head.

She-Who-sits-Alone watched, with her doll, as the elders went to the top of the mountain to receive the wisdom of the great Spirit. Several times did the sun rise above the mountain, and several times did the light fade behind the mountain’s bulk before they returned. On the mountain top, the people gathered round to hear the message of the Great Spirit, and this is what the Great Spirit said to them:

“For many generations, the people have taken from the earth whatever they needed and wanted, but they have given nothing back to the earth. Now the earth is in distress, and the people must make a sacrifice. They must bring to the fire of sacrifice their most treasured possessions. The ashes of the sacrifice must be scattered to the four winds. When this has been done, the rains will come and the earth will live again”

The people gave thanks and then returned to their teepees to search out their most treasured possessions.

“surely the Great Spirit does not want my bow,” said the archer. “Nor could the Great Spirit possibly desire my treasured blanket,” said the mother.

“I know that the Great spirit could not be asking for my herbs,” said the medicine man.
And so it continued. Everyone had a reason not to give the Great Spirit their greatest treasure.
Meanwhile, She-Who-Sits-alone took her warrior doll into her arms, held it tight and whispered, “It is you the Great Spirit desires. I know what I must do.”

So that night, when everyone slept, She-who-sits-alone threw off her sleeping blanket and climbed to the top of the mountain, carrying her warrior doll in one hand, and a lighted stick from the campfire in the other. When she reached the mountain top, she spoke to the Great Spirit.
“Great Spirit,” she said, “here is my warrior doll, the gift of my mother and my father before they died, and my most treasured possession. Please accept it,” As she kindled the fire, she wept, and she remembered her parents and grandparents and friends who had died of hunger, and she thrust her doll into the flames.

Soon the fire died down. She gathered the cooling ashes and cast them to the four winds. Exhausted, she lay down on the mountain top and fell asleep.

When the rising sun kissed her awake the next morning, she looked around, dazed. There, where she had offered her sacrifice, lay a shinning feather of the blue jay. And as she knelt to look more closely, the first drops of rain caressed her face.

From then on, She-Who-Sits-alone was given a new name by her grateful people. she became known as One-Who-Loved-Her –People.

Today marks the beginning of Lent. Lent reminds us that there are journeys we all have to make in life; physical journeys, spiritual journeys. Some journeys we can share with others, but other journeys lead us into the wilderness alone.

The New Testament accounts tell us that Jesus was baptized in the river Jordon. At that very moment the heavens opened and he heard God accepting him as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

You would have thought that this would have been a moment to savour and enjoy; a moment to soak up this incredible realisation; a moment of total bliss and happiness, but it wasn’t. Instead what happens is that he is led “by the spirit” into the wilderness to be tested. There is no time to rest on his laurels and enjoy this moment of connection and wholeness. For some reason Jesus had to immediately live out his calling, rather than sit around and enjoy his moment of blessing.

This journey that was forced on him was not a pleasant jaunt through the Cheshire countryside, like I have begun to enjoy in my time living in Altrincham, it was not a saunter through Dunham Park. It was in no sense a picnic or walk in the park. Instead he spent forty days enduring extreme deprivation and confrontations and endured a great deal of self examination. The Biblical accounts describe him being tested by the devil, by temptation. He suffered greatly and he struggled with this suffering and he suffered alone. His solitary struggle to remain true to his covenant and his calling echoed those of his ancestors who had spent forty years in the wilderness establishing a religious community after they had escaped the Pharaoh and Egypt.

Jesus and his struggles are a great metaphor for our common human experience. Entering into a time of wilderness is something that every person’s soul must journey through. At some point we all have to leave our childhoods behind and enter into adulthood. We cannot live in our childish Eden forever, we are all cast out into the wilderness at one point or another. We gain knowledge of life and when we do, this hurts. So what do we do? Well we discover the resources that we need in order to live, or we flounder.

I have experienced this sense of being cast into the wilderness many times in my life. Sometimes I have risen to the challenge and overcome the obstacles, sometimes alone and at other times with friends. On other occasions I have not. I have run away and I have hidden from whatever life has thrown at me, thus destroying my “self worth”.

During the last few years I have generally risen to the occasion, less and less do I run from life. This is what faith, the religious life, has given me above anything else. It has given me the strength to be who I am and to live with honesty and integrity. I can look the world in the eye today and say, this is who I am. I do not hide in shame, I speak my truth in love. I no longer need someone else to define who I am. That is the power of faith!

The journey into the wilderness reminds us that we are alone and yet we are not alone. Neither are we where we have been or where we are going to. The time in the wilderness is a time of danger and possibility, a time of risk and a time of promise. While we wander in the wilderness the spirit may well descend like a dove and lift us up on its wings of hope and then drive us down into the depths of despair. It may affirm us with gifts of grace and then challenge us to change. In all the great religious traditions of both the east and the west this journey into the wilderness represents a time when we both pursue and resist the Holy.

The poem  “A journey” by Edward Field portrays that sense of letting go of something at the end of the journey and how this is often a struggle, to open up the clenched fist. How even at the end of something when we are about to release these pent up emotions, we can often still be afraid of how vulnerable and exposed we can appear to others. I love and identify strongly with the man hiding behind his newspaper before he is able to allow the tears to roll from his eyes.

“He hid his head behind a newspaper

No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes
To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabrics.

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.
He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,”

Powerful imagery

In the story “She-Who-Sits Alone” has to go up the mountain top to let go of her doll. The rain fall, like tears on her face, only comes at the end of her journey. Jesus, of course, often went away from his people to commune openly and honestly with his father.

I have had similar experiences myself. I often go away on my own, either in the countryside or sometimes in the chapel to have those private moments, and I live alone. I do sometimes experience them while walking in a busy bustling street, but it rarely feels appropriate; I am still haunted with the age old saying “boys don’t cry” One of my demons.

This time in the wilderness is meant to be seen as one of purity, that is why one element of Lent is this idea of fasting, of giving something up. It is of course worth noting that virtually every religious tradition throughout human history has a period of fasting. There is value in this cleansing purifying commitment. It’s not just about food though, that is symbolic.

This time in the wilderness is not only a time of purity of letting go of things it is also a time of self sacrifice. Lent has a double meaning, it is about purification of the self and self sacrifice, universal religious principles. In the story “She-Who-Sits-Alone” is prepared to give up her doll her most prised possession, given to her by her now dead parents. She calls this doll her second self. She gives up this doll as she wanders into the wilderness and to the top of the mountain and sacrifices it. She falls asleep and when she awakens she finds the feather of a Blue Jay, just like the one that had sat on her dolls head. The rains soon follow, falling on her face, like tears, which save her people. From that day she becomes known as One-Who-Loved-Her –People. It is important to realise that she does not give her life, only her prized possession, this is because she loves her people more than her doll, her other self. Her people are more important to her than herself identity.

Most of us though cannot do what “She-Who-Sits-Alone” achieved. We are unwilling to let go of those things that we believe define and protect us, remember her doll was her id and it was her warrior too. Most of us are more like the archer, the woman, or the medicine man, unwilling to give up our blanket or bow or herbs, we are human. We believe these possessions identify and protect us.

Jesus, the great example, is difficult for us to live up to. He endured many tests during his time in the desert and was offered many temptations, but he resisted each time. I do not always resist these temptations, but I no longer beat myself up about my imperfections.

I do not think that Lent is asking us to be perfect; it’s a mistake to view it that way. That said it can be interpreted this way and there are real dangers in this. Trying to be perfect can create a paralysing fear that leads us to flee life and stops people doing the simple things they are more than capable of.

I love this line from the song “Purity” by New Model Army.

“Purity is a virtue, purity is an angel, purity is for madmen who make fools of us forgive yourself my friend all this will soon be over what happened here tonight is nothing at all”

This constant gnawing need for perfection, to transcend our humanity does us no good, in fact it can paralysing...I firmly believe in the mantra “progress, not perfection”...progress is tangible...where as perfection is something that seems way beyond my means.

Like everyone I will keep wandering off into the wilderness and experience the pain of battling with my demons. I will give what I am able to give to others too, but I won’t do it perfectly...I do not know what perfection is. That said I will do what I am able to do and perhaps that’s the real message of Lent, to give or give up what you can.

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