by Fr. Denis Lemieux.
Here is a composite of a series of conversations I’ve had recently:
Ring, ring… (Standard corporate North America telephone routine begins.)… push one-push two, working my way through the voice-mail maze… music, waiting… “Your call is important to us”… more music…
Finally, a friendly, human, non-electronic voice: “Hello, customer service. How may I help you?”
“Hello, I’m phoning to inform you of a change of address for my (bank statement/credit card bill/subscription to your magazine).”
“Would you give me your name and current mailing address.”
“My name is Fr. Denis Lemieux, and my current address is…”
I go blank. What is my address? Where am I? Which of eight possible addresses does this particular corporation have me at?
I yell down the hall at the parish secretary. “Martha, what’s the address here?” She gives it to me. I try it out on the friendly, non-electronic, customer-service lady. No. That’s not the one she has.
I try my previous address. This one works. I give my new address, thank her for her friendly manner. Just before hanging up, I say, “My life has been kind of unsettled lately.” “Sounds like it,” she replies.
In the last five years, I have moved fourteen times—four moves back and forth between the seminary and Madonna House (for the summer), four short-term assignments to MH field-houses, and (after ordination a year and a half ago) two short-term parish assignments.
That’s a lot of packing, unpacking, shunting around of boxes, names to learn, household routines and layouts to orient to, plane, train, and automobile trips.
So, perhaps I can be excused for the occasional memory lapse.
But that’s all behind me now, as I return to Madonna House in Combermere (move number fifteen!) to begin my (God-willing) looooong-term assignment to the training center here. It is good to be home, and even better to be able to put my suitcases into storage, at least for a while.
Starting over. New life. Beginning again. The phrases all have a nice ring for me at the moment.
Now that I’m back where I started from before “the moving years” began, it’s time to catch my breath, take stock, pull up my socks in any areas of life that need that particular wardrobe adjustment, and generally put my house in order, externally and internally.
It’s something we all need to do once in a while—start over. We even say it at times, especially when things have gone wrong. When life has become hard, relationships have failed, some situation or other has blown up in our faces. “I wish I could start from scratch…. I just want to go back to square one.”
I recall a line from a recent movie. One of the lead characters has made a mess of her life, and at a moment of crisis, cries out in despair, “I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”
Lent is all about this poignant desire, all about this experience of wanting to start over, of wanting to be new. Every year the Church issues us an invitation, in its liturgical cycle, to catch our breath, to take stock, to put our houses into order. To start over.
On the First Sunday of Lent this year, we hear of Jesus going into the desert to fast, pray, and confront evil. In this year’s cycle we hear Mark’s telling of the story. Like most of Mark it is short, direct, and to the point.
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him (Mark 1:12-13).
The end. Two sentences, thirty-one words. It is such a short passage compared to Matthew and Luke’s detailed accounts that we can miss the depths it contains.
Jesus in the desert, according to Mark, is starting over again on behalf of the whole human race. Jesus is returning us, in himself, to our original human condition in the Garden.
He is not going into a garden, though, but into a desert, for sin has made the world such. But in this desert, like Adam and Eve, he exists in perfect harmony with the lower creation, the wild beasts, and with the higher creation, the angels.
In this desert, he is tempted like Adam and Eve were. And in this desert, he remains, in obscurity, in hiddenness, in silence, in the Spirit, for forty days.
Back to how it all began, back to “being a baby, being new,” back to humanity in its youth and innocence, yet living this newness and restored innocence in an environment that mirrors the inner spiritual environment of humanity marred by sin.
Lent is here, and the Church is summoning us to one more change of address, one more move. Out to the desert we are to go, out to spend a season with Jesus as he confronts (our) sin and evil in order to bring us to repentance and conversion.
Out to the desert to allow him to restore us to harmony with the lower creation, in this case, the lower part of ourselves. This is what fasting is about. We deny ourselves so that our disordered passions and desires may be tempered and brought into submission to the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
Out to the desert we go, to be restored also to harmony with the higher creation. To pray, to set our minds more perfectly on God and the things of God. In this is included works of mercy, works of love, because we cannot touch God unless we reach out to our neighbour, to serve him in his need.
We do not go out to the desert, that is, we do not take on the Church’s Lenten project of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so as to renew ourselves, or to return ourselves to our lost innocence.
Any attempt at self-renewal, any attempt to make the desert into a garden by our own efforts and through our own abilities, is doomed to utter failure.
Out to the desert we are to go, ultimately because Jesus is there, and he is our only real “fixed address.” And it is in him, and through him, and with him, that we begin again. That we become new as babies, that we receive his gift of a new heaven and a new earth, a new humanity, an ever-new life.
If we look at the desert, look at our sins, look at the hard work of repentance—fasting, prayer, and all that—it is a dismal season. Just one more move in an unsettled life, and won’t it be great to move on to the next place!
But if we look at the One who calls us to the desert, especially if we look into his eyes, then we are home, and all is well. Then the eternal newness of Easter will run through our Lenten days like an underground stream, bringing us life and freshness.
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