Lent, I wonder what images it conjures up for you? This will of course depend on your level of church involvement, however… Pancakes perhaps? A random period of time before Easter? Not eating chocolate? The time when – ironically – the most chocolate is out on the supermarket shelves!
The more religiously aware might mention Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness, a period of fasting before the feast of Easter or 40 days of contemplation and self examination.
However you imagine Lent, I am relatively sure, you would not include the film ‘About a Boy’ and to be honest it was not the first thing that came into my head this year as Lent approached. However, whilst watching the film recently there are certain things about it which I think might help us through this period of 40 days in the Christian year, if of course you are open to a bit of new discovery.
By the way, I would encourage you to watch the film, even better, read the book then watch the film. So, for those who are not already familiar, let me introduce you to Will Freeman, the Island living wilderness dweller.
Will Freeman – He is the elder of the two main characters in About a Boy. He is 38 (36 in the book), but acts about 16. As his name suggests he believes he is pretty much a free man. Will lives his life with as little contact as possible with the world. Modern living offers him the opportunity to live in this way and. as it seems at the beginning, it is perfect for him. The film begins with a clip from Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the question is, Who wrote the line – ‘No man Is an Island’? Will gets the answer wrong, then suggests that all men are in fact Islands, he sees himself as an Island Paradise, Ibiza. He lives off the royalties of a song his father wrote (Santa Super Sleigh) and thinks of himself as rather cool and a bit of a catch, not that he is about to take the bait offered him by anyone wanting commitment! No-one is allowed to get close to him, he keeps his few friends at arms length and even avoids the offer to be Godparent to a friends daughter and admits to the surprised couple to being a shallow person. His Island is strictly for him with only a few select guests who come and go. He is, as another character later on in the film describes him, a bit blank. He has made himself a wilderness dweller and, unfortunately for him, this is his undoing.
It is quite possible to do what Will has done in the film, to surround oneself with enough gadgets and stuff so that they fill up your life without needing to go to other people, or connect too much with the outside world. If you have the time and the right supplies you need not depend on anyone else for anything!
In our modern society we seem ever more ready to cut ourselves off from real contact with other people. We can continue relationships from our desk with people all over the world and even invent a whole virtual existence, if we really have the inclination. I find social networking sites great to keep in touch with people a long way away, yet more than that, it makes me yearn for closer contact with those people, for real face to face contact.
However, when you cut yourself off from everything, out of the separation can come one of two things.
Firstly you can embrace the solitude, get wrapped up in the lack of anything by putting boundaries of silence between yourself your brothers and sisters and ultimately God. In Will’s case the walls he has built are to protect him from getting too close to anyone else. He uses the excuses of being busy with his life so as not to ‘have time’ for other contact. He has every conceivable gadget and home entertainment system to block out the need for other people. Will’s day is split into units of time, 30 minutes each. A whole day is too much to fill, but moving from unit to unit a day is ordered so that he can remain wrapped in his wilderness cocoon. Of course in doing this Will misses the opportunities given him by his apparent freedom.
About 200 years after the birth of Jesus, a man in Egypt felt called by God to go out into the wilderness and cut himself off from human contact, living a solitary life. This man, St. Anthony and those who followed him became known as the Desert Fathers. Out of this came the modern monastic movement. From the experience of those in the Desert we learn that far from being a place of isolation, the Desert can be a place where discoveries can be made. By making oneself empty of all meaningful contact with others, there is a vulnerability which can be exploited, by God, by the Devil, or in Will Freeman’s case by a boy called Marcus. The wilderness can be a frightening place to be.
Therefore the second thing that can come out of Island living is linked to this biblical image, wilderness as a place of discovery, a place where God is to be found. It is the place where Jesus goes for forty days before his public ministry and is tempted by the Devil. (See Mark 1:12-13) If you are open to this, or there are those around you who help you to see this you could find God, find your true self, or find, as Will does, that you actually need people around you. That one person is never enough – ‘No man is an Island!’ That life in community is far more beneficial. Our life and death is built largely on the relationship we have with those around us. Will learns this the hard way.
The paradox of the wilderness, and this is helped by a western understanding of the term, is that apparently there is nothing there, yet there is the potential for everything to be there, it is just a case of letting it in. Will finds out, with the help of Marcus that perhaps there is something he needs after all, that being an Island is not quite as he imagined.
A little closer to home, the Scottish island of Iona is a small wilderness place. It is possible to go there and get so absorbed into the the place by its isolation and beauty that you might not see what it has to offer. Many go to Iona expecting peace and tranquility, yet they might also discover that their problems have beaten them there. The problems, what we sometimes call ‘issues’ are waiting for them on the Jetty as they step off the ferry and because Iona is such a small island, a small problem can become a catastrophe. Some who go to the island centres of the Iona Community wanting a retreat are surprised to find that they are encouraged to embrace the world that they have just retreated from.
So there is a choice this Lent, get stuck into the business of being in the wilderness, that of island living like Will Freeman, keeping the solitude and distance blind to those around us, or we can embrace the wilderness life with eyes open and welcome new discoveries. Will Freeman’s world was turned on its head, his eyes opened to the possibilities by Marcus. Jesus was ministered to by angels in the wilderness and after forty days returned to the world and turned it upside down. If we really engage with what is around us, there is no telling what might happen!
Read on: Lent Two