AND IMMEDIATELY THE SPIRIT CAST JESUS OUT INTO THE DESERT. AND HE WAS THERE IN THE DESERT FORTY DAYS.

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT- CHAPTER




AND IMMEDIATELY THE SPIRIT CAST JESUS OUT INTO THE DESERT. AND HE WAS THERE IN THE DESERT FORTY DAYS, TEMPTED BY SATAN, AND HAVING BEASTS FOR HIS COMPANIONS, WITH ANGELS MINISTERING TO HIM(Mark 1:12, 13). The first chapter of St. Mark's Gospel manages to cover a great deal of experience in a short compass. In a single page, representing less than a third of the opening chapter, Mark tell us all he has to say about John the Baptist's preaching and baptismal ministry, Jesus' own experience at his baptism by John, his sojourn in the desert, the temptations he underwent there and his easy familiarity with the world of angels. The other evangelists were to fill out important details pertaining to each of these events so that we are not left so completely to our imagination in our effort to penetrate into the deeper significance of each of the matters so lightly touched upon here.

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament will recognize in each of the events referred to in these lines by Mark a theme that resonates through the centuries of Israel's historical experience. In order to grasp something of the fuller significance of each of these occurrences, in fact, the conscientious reader will relate them to their setting whose character is so largely inspired by the traditions of the chosen people. Knowledge of the Torah and the prophets is presupposed by the evangelist so that he feels no obligation to linger over any of the events he narrates so as to assure they are properly situated and so appreciated for all they imply. In any case, with his customary incisive style he states in a few words the overall meaning of these opening verses of this gospel of Jesus Christ: "There is one stronger than I coming after me... he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Just after these words he adds:" And it happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee." With this phrase Mark indicates the beginning of the new, decisive period of salvation history, which as he affirms, will be characterized by the activity of the Holy Spirit to be bestowed by the Jesus for whose coming John provides the immediate preparation.

The forty day period of Lent certainly strikes us who are now immersed in its practices as being particularly understated by St. Mark who covers it with the bare comment that Jesus " was in the desert forty days tempted by Satan." No doubt Mark also intended to convey something of significance when he added that "he was with wild beasts and angels ministered to him." The establishing of a whole new relation to creation and to the divine is gugested by this pregnant phrase.

As we apply our self to the practices of Lent and make its liturgical themes our meditation, we feel more deeply implicated in the mystery of Christ's mission. It becomes easier for us to reflect on his message, the miraculous cures and other good works he performed that were a sign of the powers given him by the Father. The whole ambient of Lent sensitizes us to the fact that as we come into contact with the person of Jesus we move into a realm where the divine begins to become more familiar than hitherto. Lent is a season when the contemplative dimension of the Christian life takes on a firmer aspect than previously.

We are hardly surprised then to discover that our monastic forebears gave a particular attention to their observance of this holy season. The Cistercian fathers, and St. Bernard prominently among them, made this time of the year a season for spiritual renewal and rededication to the fundamentals of monastic living. In this they were but following the directives of St. Benedict. Already at the time when he wrote his Rule for Monks in the first part of the sixth century, the Lenten season was observed by the Catholic community as a period of renewed dedication to their search for that purity of heart and soul which prepares for the union with God won for us by the Paschal mystery of the Lord Jesus. Accordingly, Benedict devotes a chapter of his Rule to the observance of Lent and opens it with the following lines.

Although all the life of the monk should have the character of Lenten observance, nevertheless, because such virtue is had only by a few, we exhort the brothers to keep their life in all purity during these days of Lent, and to wash away all the negligences of other seasons during these days.

All progress of the higher life requires some measure of renunciation of immediate satisfactions of a lesser kind. This applies to sports, to the intellectual life, to attaining higher social position as well as to the spiritual life. An added motive for the Christian of practicing self-denial and satisfaction of the senses is the sharing in the self-sacrifice of Christ. St. Bernard stresses this motive in the first of his sermons for this season. "Why should not the fast of Christ be shared by all Christians? Why should the members not follow the head? If we have received good things from this head why should we not bear evils (Sermo 1.1 In Capite Jejunii PL 183: 167)?" It is not so much that we imitate Christ exteriorly as that we seek to put on something of the same dispostions that were so characteristic of him. Fasting, in whatever measure we practice it, both expresses the serious intent to deny one's own desires and inculcates a certain attitude of attentiveness to the Lord, and a sharing in his kind of experience. Bernard develops these ideas at some length at the beginning of Lent in his chapter talk to the monks of his own community. He reminds that "All that the Lord suffers is for us. But if we find it distasteful to collaborate with him in the work of our salvation how shall we then show ourselves to be coadjutors with him?" To adhere to the Lord wherever he goes entails that we fast with him.

But the chief work of Lent is to acquire a greater purity of life and of heart, and it is one of the major purposes of such practices as fasting and more time spent in spiritual reading to contribute to the work of purifying the heart. This entails our becoming more consciously concerned with our interior motivations and intentions in the concrete. It is not enough to have the general intent of pleasing God in all things, important as this remains for all of us. We must carrying it through into the actions and thoughts that fill our day as we go about our duties and interact with others. How subtly we weaken our best of resolves as we enter into the manifold activities and exchanges that engage us.

Our deeper dispositions, our emotional needs and conflicts enter into our motivations without our realizing that they often compromise our best intentions. Such experiences, when recognized for what they are by attentive examination, as we reflect on our behavior and experiences of the day, are so many opportunities for entering more deeply into the hidden places of the soul. When we thus deliberately identify them we are then in a position to expose them to the grace of God so as to receive the light and strength needed for us to free their hold on our motives from what is selfish or lacking in consideration for others. We still must act upon these insights before they are truly assimilated and we develop new habits of virtue. The saints were concerned precisely with attaining to such purity of soul as results from this daily guarding of the heart, even searching out the hidden recesses of thought and feeling so as to remove the obstacles to God's love lurking there. St. Bernard leads the way here as well as we can see from his remarks in another sermon preached in chapter at Clairvaux during the Lenten season.

Observe carefully what you love, what you fear, what makes you rejoice, what causes you to be sad. See whether under your religious habit you have a worldly soul, and whether, hidden by the cloth of conversion, your heart is perverse. The whole of the heart is in these four affections and in these four is comprised, as I see it, all that is involved when you turn to God with your whole heart (Sermo 2.3 in Quadragesima PL 183: 172D).

St. Augustine had already concluded, from his reflection on St. Paul's words to the Galatians (5: 22), that every virtue is a form of love.

St. Augustine
The fruit of the Spirit, he says, is charity. He then weaves together the other fruits which arise from this source and are connected with it. These are joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, faith, meekness, continence. For who rejoices well who does not love that which gives him joy? Who enjoys true peace except with him whom he truly loves? Who is patient in remaining perseveringly in the good unless he is fervent in loving? Who is benign unless he loves the one he assists? Who is good unless he is made so by loving? Who is helpfully faithful save by that faith which works through love? Who is usefully meek without being tempered by love? Who keeps himself from defilement save by loving that which makes him pure? And so justly does the good teacher in this way commend love as alone to be commanded, for without it the other good things cannot come to be and which cannot be possessed without the other good things by which man is made good (Tractus in Joannes Evangelium 87.1 BAC ed, 468).

So true is this that a human person can be properly described in terms of what he loves. We are, as persons, what we love (cf. Ep. Jo 5.7-8; 2,14 noted in Augustine through the Ages, 509). My worth is my love (pondus meus amor meus), as Augustine expresses it succinctly. From this point of view then, the whole of the spiritual life can be considered as the proper ordering and cultivation of love. He was convinced of the primacy of love and accordingly taught that we can do nothing better than devote ourselves to cultivating the virtue of charity and submitting the whole of our being to its transforming power.

By charity, therefore, it happens that we are conformed to God.... What else is there that is best for man, save that he clings to the one who is the most blessed? That is certainly God to whom we cannot adhere except by love, affection and charity..... But if virtue leads us to the happy life, I would affirm that there is no virtue save the highest love (De moribus ecclesiae 23-25 PL 32: 1321...1322).

Love itself, however, must be ordered in order to fulfill its promise of happiness, as St. Augustine explained quite explicitly.

For love itself must be loved in an ordered manner in which that which ought to be loved is loved well with the result that we might possess that virtue by which we live well. For this reason it seems to me that a true and brief definition of virtue is the order of love ("La Cité de Dieu"XV.22, Paris 1960, 140).

St. Bernard in this respect as in any number of other matters, showed himself an apt and faithful follower of the Bishop of Hippo. In the two Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles 2: 4, "He ordered charity in me.", Bernard discusses what it means to put charity in right order, its necessity and the way to go about it. He also dwells on its function in terms of the community of believers, of the Church as the mystical body.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
And so discretion is not so much a virtue as a certain moderator and director of the virtues. She orders the affections and teaches moral habits. Remove discretion and virtue will be a vice and natural affection itself is rather converted into a disturbance and the exile of nature. "He set charity in order within me." That was done when "he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, others as evangelists, other pastors and teachers for the perfection of the saints (Eph. 4: 11, 12)." It was fitting that charity should bind all these together and adjust them to one another in the unity of the body of Christ. This could in no way be done if charity were not ordered (Sermones in Cantica 49: 5 PL 193: 1013C, D) .

Love is a term that, as we all know, covers a very broad spectrum of signification. When the nature of love is examined in detail, a good deal of description and qualification must be employed to convey any precise meaning. Love is so closely bound up with the identity and history of each individual, it seems, that in each instance it is called into play, it takes on some specific new color. Entire novels have been composed in attempts to lay bare its workings in the human heart without exhausting the theme, most of them dealing with romantic forms and the love between the sexes which would seem to be the most obvious and striking manifestation of that passion. Certainly there is an important channel that readily connects the passion of love to sexual attraction; but there are any number of other forms of love that turn out to be, in many persons, of greater significance not only for the individual but for society as a whole. Love of family, friends, country, love of fame, popularity, riches- these are but a sampling of loves that daily influence the lives of countless persons.

As the novelist Stendhal observed men are reluctant to use the term "love" alone in their conversation. To talk about love seems to bare the soul to profane eyes; unqualified by some other term, it comes too close to the unprotected self we feel we are at our center. Still talk about it men must if they would confront the human condition with any measure of depth and seriousness, and persons with all kinds of qualifications have not hesitated to attempt to contribute to the great conversation. R. O. Johann has some useful observations to make on this theme that suggest something of the reason why the topic of love will always remain important for the human person at every age of existence. Interest in it is not to be confined to the young.

An affective accord or union with what is in some way grasped as congenial. While almost hopelessly general, this definition has the merit of indicating the dynamic and relational character of all love and of suggesting that its function is to promote wholeness. An effort to specify the levels of wholeness toward which various loves are directed cannot fail to throw light on the ultimate meaning and destiny of human existence (The New Catholic Encyclopedia 8: 1039).

Thus discerning the nature of any given love is a major requirement of a truly human life. Some loves seek fulfillment and wholeness on a level that proves to be in conflict with values essential for a higher happiness. To resist their appeal requires a clear vision of their relation to these other levels. To invest one's self in a love on the sensual level too fully at the expense of the spiritual, ceases before long to give the same satisfaction. Sensual loves, whether sexual, or material such as drugs or alcohol, must have ever increased quantities to produce a sense of repletion until they become destructive of human well-being and become a source of suffering. Other material loves- of wealth, fame, popularity- also become addictive and function independently of the welfare of the person as a whole.

Love that has as its object what is spiritual and rational, on the other hand, provides an ever increasing satisfaction as it is more permanent. For what is spiritual and divine is also infinite, without limit and so corresponds to our nature, which includes reason as well as the need to love what is worthy of its freedom and intelligence. Being capable of knowing and loving absolute truth and realities, the human person is frustrated in some dimensions of being until he possesses the One Being who alone matches and exceeds the measure of his potential for transcendent goodness and beauty.

Love, until it attains this proper measure that is in some way without limit, remains dissatisfied. As St. Gregory the Great put it: " The soul that has begun to burn with the desire to follow the one she loves, liquefied under the fire of love, advances rapidly. Desire renders her restless (Homilia in Evang. 25.2 PL 76: 1191A. Cited in D.S. II.1: 549 s.v. charité). This urging of love gives it a force, Evelyn Underhill observes, that gathers the dispersed acts of our soul to itself (cf. An Anthology of The Love of God, 29). In this way it lends enhanced meaning to our whole existence in proportion as it dominates and guides our choices. Growth in love, then, creates a stronger sense of unity, of direction and so intensifies the sense of the significance of life as it impels us to our final end. This is the ultimate and paradoxical power of love that as it seeks only to give itself every more fully to the beloved, it receives, through the very purity and intensity of its desire for the good of the one loved, all the happiness and joy it is created for. These are the mysteries that the Lord Jesus reveals to us in his passion, death and resurrection. May our observance of Lent, under the urging of spiritual desire, enable us to attain to the purity of love that the Lord wishes to share with us through the fruit of his Paschal mystery, the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


[abbey crest]

© Abbey of the Genesee: All Rights Reserved

Home Page Index Page Archive Page