I have often wondered what Jesus’ experience in the wilderness might actually have been like. The account of this is read at the beginning of our Lenten observance and acts as background to the church's call to do what Jesus did: to pray, to enter a period of self examination and to listen for the leading voice of God.
In the early 2000s I remember reading Jim Crace’s novel, ‘Quarantine’ which retells this story, but in the novel, Jesus is one of a handful of people who have retreated to the Judean wilderness in search of enlightenment. On his way into the desert, Jesus stumbles across the tent of Musa, a selfish and brutal trader who has fallen ill and been abandoned by all but his long-suffering and pregnant wife. Musa’s health revives; the ‘miracle’ is credited to the mysterious Galilean, who has hidden himself in an almost inaccessible cave to pray and fast. Musa lingers in the area, hoping for another encounter with the holy man while shrewdly exploiting the quarantiners and recovering his strength.
Later Musa, abandoned and alone in the desert, encouraged by a fleeting vision of a resurrected Jesus, sets off once more along the caravan ways and ‘trades the word’ of the man in the desert who ‘defeated death’.
The original meaning of ‘quarantine’ is ‘a period of forty days’, hence the title of Crace’s novel of a forty-day sojourn in the desert. But the word’s modern English significance – a period of isolation imposed on people to prevent the spread of disease – is timely in the light of the coronavirus epidemic in China. Musa’s sickness and recovery set the novel in motion. The Christian message as summarised by Musa at the end of the novel is not ‘Love thy neighbour’ but ‘Be well’. Having starved himself to death, Jesus gives rise in Musa’s shadowed mind to the notion that death itself can be defeated. ‘ "Be well," he told me. And I am well.’
Lent is calling to us, beginning on 26th February this year. During the season we will have the opportunity to 'be well' with God through prayer, as Jesus did, and to grow in confidence in our praying.
As our study this year we will be using 'The Prayer Course' by Pete Grieg, which will give us resources to develop a growing confidence in and an invitation to explore styles to enrich our praying. The material all centres around the Lord's Prayer so there will be some familiarity. There is also an excellent accompanying book called 'How To Pray' and I commend both highly to you. Please look for days and times of when the groups are meeting and do join us.
Later in the year I will have time to 'be well' as I have been invited to take some extended time away from the parish to pray, reflect and listen for the leading of the voice of God. I have been given the opportunity to take Extended Study Leave by the Bishop. This period of time used to be called a 'sabbatical' and it is an extended block of time which is offered to clergy every ten years under certain circumstances. I am very grateful to be able to take this time.
I will be away from parish ministry from the beginning of September and returning in time for Advent. This time is a gift. It is not an extended holiday or a jolly, but the opportunity to do a number of things: to rest, to renew relationships with others and with God, and to be refreshed in one's own study, learning and experience.
I have plans for the time: I will be exploring silence in different contexts - monastic, on pilgrimage and in solitude. I have an extensive reading list to work through and I will be blogging about the impact of extended silence on me and on my faith and prayer. I will also be spending time with family and friends.
I will be at home at the Vicarage off and on during this time. I know you will, but please respect that I will be off duty, so any day to day parish questions can as usual be dealt with by Elaine in the office, by the Wardens and of course by Sam. Please don't quarantine me though! Do stop and chat if you see me around.
Sam will be covering much of the parochial ministry during that time with the wider ministry team, the PCC and by you all. Please do pray for him and support him especially during that time.
Following His time in the wilderness, Jesus began His public ministry with a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God. I know I will return from this time refreshed and renewed but I also hope that I return with a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God in this parish and to see it being revealed by, to and through each of us.