08-Lent: Leaving the Desert
To acknowledge the purposelessness of human history, to refuse
to endow it with a linear march toward human perfection, is to give
up the comforting idea that we are unique or greater than those who
came before us. It is to accept our limitations and discard our intoxicating
utopian dreams. It is to become human.
- Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Dear fellow wanderers,
Midway through this past weekend – following a few cocktails, a lengthy midnight walk, and a bit of meditation on a striking podcast by British writer Paul Kingsnorth – I somewhat dramatically laid down on my bed and gave up on trying to save the world. The epiphany was a long time coming. It’s tough to read the latest climate change data or reports on species extinctions and not draw a similar conclusion. There are awfully dark days ahead.
The revelatory moment, which more-or-less came down to me acknowledging the ultimately insignificant and highly fallible nature of our species, arrived at a unique period in the Lenten calendar: the day before Palm Sunday – when donkey-riding Jesus was waved into Jerusalem for Passover – and less than a week before Good Friday – the peculiarly named day commemorating his execution (not that I’m comparing myself to Jesus, just to be clear on that point).
But there’s something vaguely relatable about the reported journey of Jesus from the gates of the city to his murder on its fringes. It was all uncertain. Some accounts – namely the Gospels of Matthew and Mark – show him pleading in Gethsemane for a lighter load. Perhaps he knew exactly what was coming. Maybe, if he was pressing forward with mere human instinct, he could only sense bad vibes. We’ll never exactly know.
What we might be able to extract from the text is that Jesus was prepared for the calamitous hours ahead. Indeed, he broke down in the garden, buckling under the enormous weight of whatever he could precisely predict. But without the intense groundwork of his formative years – especially the intense physical and spiritual trials he experienced in the desert – who knows if he could’ve pulled through. The darkness may have consumed his convictions.
I’m not pretending that the hardships of future decades will inspire the exact kind of anguish that Jesus experienced. However, it’s difficult to deny that we’re going to need some serious fortitude in order to stick to convictions that mark the Christian path – humility, compassion, hospitality, generosity – in the face of increasing austerity and dwindling resources. We’ll require both physical and spiritual preparation. I’d like to think that Lent has provided us such a possibility.
Sure, this might seem like I’m viewing the sacred season in an overly utilitarian, borderline contemptuous, light. But I think the Lent for Skeptics series has been about re-imagining an ancient tradition, interpreting it through the lens of today’s world. Maybe we’ve missed the mark. Perhaps we’ve stumbled across something of worth. All I know is that we all have to learn how to be more loving, less greedy, increasingly communal, decreasingly self-centred. Maybe Lent has helped.
By continuing to foster a worldview composed of such characteristics, we may be able to embrace despair – to paraphrase Kingsnorth – and hold true to our values, the same way that Jesus did some two millennia ago. In other words, don’t stop applying what you’ve learned this Lent to your life just because the season is formally ending. Attempt to integrate elements of the disposition. Then, during the next Lenten period, you can begin again.
That’s it for the Lent for Skeptics series. It’s been a real pleasure writing and receiving your feedback on them. We hope that you’ve discovered some sense of encouragement or provocation through the posts. If you’re wanting to get more of this kind of stuff, subscribe to the magazine! Or, if you just want to chat, feel free to get in touch with us at lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org