Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 1st March 2009
“He was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan” Mark 1:13
Extreme circumstances can bring forth the most unexpected reactions; even in the wilderness, God’s grace can be found.
Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, told of a young Jewish woman who was with him in a concentration camp:
This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.'”
It is a strange and remarkable story. In the beauty of two chestnut blossoms, on a single branch of a single tree, in that awful place, that young woman found reassurance that God was still present, that God still cared, that God offered eternal life.
In extreme conditions, it is often the most ordinary and the most mundane things to which we hold on for reassurance and hope. If we have been bereaved, if we have faced serious illness, if we have been worried about someone we love, it is often the ordinary, everyday things to which we look for comfort. We want someone at home with us, not for the special or the unusual moments, but for the ordinary times, for the everyday experiences.
When we are going through wilderness times, when there is barrenness all around, even the most ordinary things can be special.
The late Fr Eddie Fitzgerald wrote very movingly about his battle with cancer. Eddie Fitzgerald spoke on one occasion of being in a hospital ward where the man in the bed opposite was very ill. The man’s wife kept vigil at the bedside. At one point, the man raised his hand as if to reach for someone, his wife immediately clasped his hand in her two hands. It was a moment of great beauty, a moment with a sacramental quality. In something as ordinary as a handclasp there was the presence and reassurance of God.
We have all had experiences of not realising how much someone or something meant to us until they were gone. These experiences are most intense in situations like those described by Victor Frankl or Eddie Fitzgerald, but they also happen in much more mundane moments
At school we were encouraged to read literary books and our teacher was particularly fond of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When I was fifteen, I read Solzhenitsyn’s description of life in a labour camp. It was called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and that is what it described: one day in the life of a prisoner in the deprivation, monotony and violence of the sort of camp where the Communists put those who disagreed with them. Nothing really happens in the story, but I remember being drawn into the reality of the daily existence and actually feeling a sense of delight when Ivan Denisovich manages to secure an extra slice of black bread, which he hides in the mattress of his bed until he could eat it at a time when he could savour it. A slice of dry black bread seemed like a feast.
Only when we are deprived, only when we are going through times that are not ordinary, do we appreciate the little things, the things that we perhaps hadn’t even noticed before.
The young Jewish woman had probably passed countless chestnut trees in the days before the tyranny of Hitler and had perhaps hardly even noticed that they were there. Yet in these final days and hours one bough of a tree speaks to her of the almighty God of time and eternity. She is cheerful because this one bough has become for her the presence of the whole universe and the promise of eternal life.
Eddie Fitzgerald, like most clergy, had probably seen countless hand clasps in the course of his ministry, but it is from the perspective of his hospital bed that he suddenly appreciates the sacramental significance of this ordinary act. In the outward action, there is transmitted a love and a commitment that the man’s wife could probably never have articulated in words.
Solzhenitsyn, the person behind the character of Ivan Denisovich, probably regarded black bread with disdain during his days of freedom, something to be eaten only when nothing else could be procured, but, in the privations of the labour camp, this poorest of fare becomes great treasure.
It is astonishing how these wilderness moments, which to onlookers seem utterly barren and empty, can be positive, can even be occasions of cheerfulness. The young Jewish woman says that she is grateful fate has hit her so hard because up until now she has not taken spiritual matters seriously. Eddie Fitzgerald’s article, in which he described the hand clasp, was called, ’Letting illness make the best of me’.
The extreme times are the occasions when life is put into perspective, when what matters becomes clear and what is trivial and unimportant is seen for what it is. On the edge of life, we see very clearly.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness is about gaining perspectives, about seeing beyond the distractions of this world to the things that are true and lasting. Saint Mark tells us, very succinctly, “He was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan.” the forty days clarify what he is for and what he is against; what matters and what is unimportant; what is true and what is false.
We have the opportunity to think about our life now. We have the time to look around us, to look at those whom we love, to look at the beauty of our world, to look at all the ordinary, everyday things, and to be thankful, for each and for every moment.
Our Lent is not spent in the wilderness, but it can be a time to be quiet, a time to look around, a time to listen.
Had she been given the opportunity, the young woman in that concentration camp might have lived her remaining years very differently; she might have been delighted at the opportunity to treasure moments that previously had just slipped by. In her final days, when all is lost, she hears the voice of God. We have countless opportunities that she never had; in the moments we have, may we also hear the voice of God.