There is a desert of a different kind, the desert we experience in our ordinary lives. The desert is within all of us. A few days after my return from the Sahara I went to the doctor who sent me to A&E to have my heart checked out because I have been struggling a bit with breathing. I have had a heart murmur since I was 17 and she had noticed something else in the ECG that she took in the surgery. So, I entered into a ten-and-a-half-hour process of waiting, being tested and waiting again. Two more ECG’s, an x-ray and numerous blood tests. And I thought to myself that, for all of us gathered there, A&E is another kind of desert, a testing, an encounter with our own frailty.
You feel vulnerable and uncertain. And somehow unworthy to be the recipient of the attention all of the medical staff show. I’m seen by four different doctors each of whom asks me the same questions which makes me wonder if they don’t actually believe me, that maybe I’m a fraud! But they treat me with such respect, touch my body with such reverence even as they prod and poke me with needles. They don’t know I’m a priest, so it’s not preferential treatment. I’m Mr. Monson to them and they are happy to treat me well, to do all in their power to ensure that I am well, to discover what it is that might be unwell within me. There's an air of happiness about them even though they must be under a lot of pressure.
At 1.30am the doctor gently takes my hand and apologises for the length of time I have had to wait, telling me I have to wait just a little bit longer. “The waiting is in your own best interest” he says. I know it is, I tell him. As it turns out I have to come back again the next day for a scan which takes another five hours. There’s no conclusion so they would like me to see a cardiologist. The bottom line is I’m fine, thank God!
The suffering of all the people gathered there in A&E finds its way into my heart. Particularly harrowing are the cries of the children, the suffering that they cannot put into words or understand. The perplexed, puzzled look on their faces. I have time to pray for them all.
Apart from the kindness of the medics and all the staff two other things hold me in peace, keep me going. Firstly, I feel enfolded in the embrace of God and, secondly, I meet quite a number of people from the parish who are there with their own ailments. Initially I was hoping that I would not meet anyone from the parish but very early on in the evening I saw a familiar face in the row opposite, so I went over to say hello and the woman told me she was at that very moment reading my Sahara blog! A few hours later a man from the parish came in great pain, later still a young family who seemed pleased to see me there! We are all concerned for each other and are bonded more closely by being there together.
Lent got off to a vibrant start with the presence at Mass of all the children from the primary school who brought a note of joy to this solemn season. And indeed, this joy is appropriate and in keeping with what Jesus says in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday – “when you fast, do not put on a gloomy look!” It is what Nehemiah calls us to, “this day is joyful to the Lord; do not be sad because the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
What we see happen to Jesus in the desert at the beginning of Lent is that the devil seeks to deceive, discourage, to bring him down and question his very identity, suggesting that Jesus isn’t really who He says, that He isn’t really the Son of God. What sustains Jesus and arms him against the devil’s tactics is what God the Father said to Him at His Baptism immediately before the desert, “You are my Son the Beloved, my favour rests on you!”
We are all confronted by discouragement and self-doubt. Lent is partly about choosing which voice we listen to – the one that brings us down or the one that reminds us that we are, each one of us, the Beloved of God. It’s not new news, very old news in fact but we haven’t allowed ourselves to really hear it and take it in.
The desert is a fascinating and surprising place. In the midst of all the barrenness you come upon the most amazing miracles of life. A tiny yellow flower all on its own! And you wonder how it came to be there, how it can even survive, where does it get its moisture? The answer is hidden somewhere deep below the hot dry surface of the sand. The presence of such a flower is a reminder to us in our barren times of the spiritual and emotional nourishment that lies hidden in the deep recesses of our being.
We are reminded in the desert to contemplate the beauty of small things. In Lent we are reminded to contemplate the signs of life that are within and around us, to contemplate the beauty of God, to contemplate the beauty of those who fill our lives every day. It might be a good exercise this season to sit down with your family, to look at each one’s face and contemplate the beauty there. To contemplate and be blessed by it.