Sermon for Lent
Martin Henig (ASWA Vice President)
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The lure of the wilderness is present in many religious traditions. In Christianity it has been an important theme ever since the time of St Antony and the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. Their eremitical ideal was taken up in the ‘wet deserts’ of IrelandandWestern Britain. The ‘Celtic Christianity’ of the monks on Skellig Michael, of Columba on Iona and of Cuthbert on Holy Island was very far from the current whimsical notion of ‘Celtic spirituality’ that seems to have taken hold in the popular mind. Its distinctiveness lay in its powerful Penitential tradition, of fasting and abstinence and acts of extreme mortification, its stripping away of absolutely everything that came between the sinner and God. In the deserts of the Atlantic West, as in those of the Eastern deserts, monks and hermits lived in flimsy shelters or in dark caves while the barest necessities in the way of food were hard to find, in landscapes hostile to crops. Women and men went into the desert to discover their true selves by stripping away all inessentials and to fight the demonic forces lurking within themselves . In the lives of saints such as Antony and in art these are shown in physical form, as terrifying winged creatures, but the devils they encountered in truth were projections of hunger, lust, boredom, anger, pride and all the other sins that beset humans, rendered all the more acute in the emptiness of untamed nature.
And yet if wilderness too often brings out the worst in us, this is merely a reflection of the pampered and privileged lives so many humans have always had and especially possess now, with the support of families and friends, and vast quantities of possessions , expensive clothes and vast quantities of food, far more than is necessary to sustain life. The life of the desert hermit for most of us seems very distant, almost shocking. That is illustrated well by the story of how St Francis ofAssisirejected the life of a rich merchant, casting off his clothes and his patrimony in order to follow Christ still fills those of us who try to follow the example of St Francis with awe.
A feature that recurs again and again in the lives of the Desert Fathers, of the Celtic Saints and of St Francis is their closeness to the animals, which they save (like St Giles’s hind), befriend or are befriended by (St Jerome’s lion and St Cuthbert’s otters) and even preach to (St Francis’s birds). This is no mere conceit. In part it goes back to the Covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9,8-17), which was the reading from the Hebrew scriptures last Sunday. God makes a Covenant with his entire Creation, with ‘all flesh’, that he will never again destroy his Creation by flood. As is clear from later reflections of this Covenant in Hosea(2,18) and Isaiah (54,9-10 and see Isaiah 11,1-9), the ideal of paradise is the restoration of peace between all creatures; it is a restoration because something had certainly gone wrong, for the story of the Bible from Cain and Abel onwards is shot through with conflict. In our world (and alas in the Church) far too little thought is given to our relationship with the rest of Creation, and that despite Our Lord’s saving sacrifice! We selfishly exploit the habitats of wild creatures and are still driving many of them to extinction. The horrors of factory farming, treating God’s Creation as mere commodity, is part of the very real obscenity against which the Church should be protesting as a major issue, both of theology and pastoral care. At least Bishop John and three other bishops have pointed to it as an abuse this Lent as part of the reason for abstaining from meat at least in this penitential season.And of course it goes without saying that this obscenity extends to the way we treat other members of our own species, either deliberately or through negligence, including indigenous peoples in the very few great wildernesses which remain whose integrity is compromised by those who want to exploit natural resources for gain. Far from wildernesses being places distant from God, they have increasingly come to be seen and cherished as havens, as habitats to protect; and the demons are in truth, as they always have been and always will be, human demons.
In one of his greatest plays, William Shakespeare explores the stripping down of the human animal, divesting him of power, wealth, comfort and even the barest necessities of life. King Lear is a mighty ruler who abandons his power to his two unscrupulous older daughters. He and two or three notables of his former court find themselves on a heath in a storm. After raging against his fate, Lear’s thoughts turn to prayer and,at last, thoughtfulness about others:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!.. (King Lear act 3 sc.4, ll.28-33).
He is then confronted supposedly by Tom o’Bedlam tormented by the ‘foul fiend’ or by more than one fiend, for Flibbertigibbet, Obidicut, Hobbididence, Mahu and Modo (King Lear act 3,sc 4 l.45;act 4,sc.1 ll.57-63) are mentioned at various times, and as we have seen the demons belong in the wilderness. Tom is in fact Edgar, elder son of the Duke of Gloucester, who has been expelled from his patrimony by his credulous father. For his lack of spiritual vision he will literally lose his eyes. Just as Lear in the wilderness at last comes to realise the plight of the outcast, the outsider so the Duke of Gloucester painfully learns that human actions have consequences, in his case indulging in sex without responsibility and Edmund, the illegitimate son he bore, betrays him. As Edgar concludes:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.(King Lear act 5 sc.3.ll 170-172)
That is a harsh judgement on selfish indulgence in wrongdoing, indeed belonging to the searing truth of the wilderness where all creation is equal.
And for Lear, too, lack of self-knowledge results in an even more terrible reckoning for him,the death of his beloved Cordelia, ultimately the victim of his own former foolishness, arrogance and unforgiving anger: Almost his last word is the unanswered question:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (King Lear act 5 sc.3,ll.306-307)
Most of us are protected, at least to a degree, from the consequences of our actions by the safety nets society provides. The wilderness is a place where the boundary between life and death is very thin. King Lear purports to be set in Pagan Britain, but of course the play is full of Christian resonances, and can be read, acted and seen as a Christian morality.
One character who first challenges and opposes King Lear in giving away his kingdom and disowning Cordelia, and is banished for his plain speaking and true loyalty is the Duke of Kent who preserves his nobility and spiritual freedom throughout the trials laid upon him. Offered the crown at the very end of the play he declines with the words:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me; I must not say no.(King Lear act 5, sc.3, ll.521-522).
On one, perhaps the most obvious, reading he is already an old man and feels he will die in a few months or years and so follow his master, Lear to the grave. But the words seem to me to have a Biblical resonance, and the master he is truly following is Christ., besides whom nothing else matters And, like Christ, he has resisted the all too fickle blandishments of temporal power. And as we all know, at least in this Church, Shakespeare was deeply familiar with the Bible.
Being in the wilderness can be a very testing experience indeed, and one is struck by the many ways in which people today, and probably in all past ages too, have tried to avoid communing with themselves and with God. So many churches are awash with a babble of voices or banal songs, hectoring Jesus or otherwise attempting to avoid encountering the divine mystery in the awe and silence of the wilderness. As the Insular saints discovered it can be profoundly rewarding to discover one’s own sacred space in which to pray and to meditate. We find Jesus again and again seeking solitude in lonely places. Satan was no match for Him and so his ministry of love and compassion surely began with the wild beasts:
Christ of His gentleness
Thirsting and hungering
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace He spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.
He heard the bitterns call
From the ruined palace wall,
Answered them brotherly;
He held communion
With the she-pelican
Of lonely piety.
Flocked to His homilies,
With mail of dread device,
With monstrous barbed slings,
With eager dragon-eyes;
Great rats on leather wings,
And poor blind broken things,
Foul in their miseries.
And ever with Him went,
Of all His wanderings
Comrade, with ragged coat,
Gaunt ribs-poor innocent-
Bleeding foot, burning throat,
The guileless old scapegoat;
For forty nights and days
Followed in Jesus’ ways,
Sure guard behind Him kept,
Tears like a lover wept.