From time to time I am interviewed about my journey, my faith, and my vocation. I recall a question in such interview very clearly. The question was:
“Have you always been an observant Christian? Was there a critical moment in your life – an ‘aha!’ moment – when you saw the power and beauty of your religion with particular clarity, and chose to embrace it? Tell us something about what you saw, who influenced you, and how that moment impacted upon your life/lifestyle.”
For me the question can easily be answered almost to the day and the time. One of the most significant experiences in my own spiritual life was my attendance at a retreat led by the French Canadian, Jean Vanier in May 1978. Following his death, it became apparent that Jean Vanier was a more complex individual than he presented. There was a shadow side to him, as there is for all of us. This shadow side of Vanier had not respected boundaries and left people hurt. However, by the late 1970s Jean Vanier had become a well-known spiritual writer, having founded Christian communities for those with disabilities, called L’Arche, in France, and then beyond, and in the late 1970s L’Arche communities were just beginning in Australia.
Nothing prepared me for the effect that listening to Vanier was to have on me that week of May 1978. Perhaps it was the lyrical French Canadian accent that saturated me. But much profoundly, it was the way in which Vanier opened up the Gospels to us in a way that I had not previously entertained. Prior to hearing Jean Vanier my identity as a member of the Church had given me a great sense of identity and place. Growing up, I experienced the Church as a safe place to be. However, the experience with Jean Vanier began to pierce the armour that such a belonging had created. His words and teaching on the Gospel laid me bare; they exposed me to myself. For the first time I felt I had nowhere to hide: I had to confront just how vulnerable I actually felt, and how much of my self-presentation was a defence against such difficult feelings.
I think I have spent the rest of my life living out the lessons of that single week. It was that moment through which I saw the power and beauty of my religion with particular clarity, and at which time I chose to embrace it with greater personal consciousness. Essentially the week was a Lenten experience. It was Lenten because it stripped me bare such that I had to acknowledge the truth of myself. As Raimundu Pannikar reminds us:
“If we would see and love the Real, there must first be a rupture, a break, a conversion of the tissues of the heart. Although we know by faith that this rupture is always a response to God’s initiative in our lives, we must still suffer the painful losses involved.”
And it is always a painful experience to be led through the various defences we can weave around ourselves, to accept the truth of oneself.
To come to this kind of self-acknowledgement is to enter into a kind of desert. In the Scriptures the desert is the place where the people return to the truth of their dependency on their God. Everything else is stripped away, except this radical truth. Allesandro Pronzata writes, the desert is the “place where we discover the roots of our existence. Once we grasp this lesson, [we do not need to go into a geographical desert]. You can find your desert in a corner of the house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.”
The season of Lent and the metaphor of the desert go hand in hand. Lent calls us into the desert – as Pronzata suggests, not the desert of sand but rather the desert of whatever strips away the illusions we have of ourselves: the wilderness of our grief, the wilderness of our waiting, the wilderness of our disappointments. We don’t have to create experiences of the desert. Rather, the genuine deserts of our life find us in all those experiences which lead us home to ourselves – not as we would like to be, but just as we are – without pretence, without presumption, without projection. Lent calls us to take these deserts of our life – however they present to us – with seriousness such that we might become freer from the burden of pretence, of presumption and projection. In all of this we are learning to live deliberately – learning as the 19th century American writer, Henry Thoreau, described, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
This is the spiritual possibility of the deserts of our life. These deserts, however they present themselves, bear within them a radical invitation: something is called to die, in order that something might live. We die to the illusions we have of ourselves; we rise to the freedom the truth about ourselves enables. We are invited to let go of all the external ways by which we measure our value, our esteem, our success. We are called to come internally into ourselves with honesty, acceptance and possibility. In so doing we die to our defences, our denials and delusions and rise to hear that which makes us able to be more open, more attentive, more receptive. Jesus is saying to us, “Let go of trying to build yourself up by looking outwards; come home to yourself, go into yourself and discover yourself as God knows you.”
The experience of my retreat many years ago with Jean Vanier led me into a journey into something of the uniqueness of the gospel’s perspective on life. From that time I realised that I was a Christian not simply because I had been born into a Catholic family but because no other story than that revealed through Jesus Christ engages both my deepest hurt and at the same time by widest longing. Both are equally touched in the story of Jesus. I am a Christian because of the God whom Jesus discloses: a God who is not powerful, but who is vulnerable: a God who suffers with me and in me, and who, in so doing, opens out a future for me not from how I should be, but for how I truly am. The ‘logic’ of the gospel became much clearer. Here was a teaching that led me deeper into my humanity and vulnerability, rather than away from it, and yet which from that place deep inside me liberated my desire for an open horizon. I began to discern what ‘power’ meant from the gospel’s perspective. It was a power that rendered us all more human. It was a power that alone could make the world different. And it is a power that can continue to make a difference in each of us if we follow its call.
May each of us hear that call in a new and deeper way, personally and uniquely, in the weeks ahead throughout this Lenten period so that we too might glimpse the power and beauty of our Christian faith with new clarity.
 Raimundo Panikkar, Blessed Simplicity: The monk as universal archetype (New York: Seabury, 1982).
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