Wilderness

I’ve been reading I, Daniel Blake.  It is a true story, though not real.  The contents of the story are happening all around us, though this particular telling has not actually taken place.  It is in some sense a wilderness book.  It leads us to a place from where there can be no escape if we are unfortunate enough to get within its grasp.  Reading the script you are caught up almost with the protagonists between living and existing.  Wilderness, so we understand it: A place of nothing.  Or a place undiscovered.  Or a place wild and untamed.  In reality wilderness is in direct relation to the human perceiving it.  For no place is truly wild to itself, it is what it is.  A rainforest is a rainforest.  Human perception calls it inhospitable.  The desert is sand.  That humans find it hard to traverse was useful in fact for the early desert fathers, St. Anthony and his band of followers who went out into the desert to escape the business of modern life.  There were no distractions out there in the desert, but then into that silence comes all our issues.  What the desert fathers would have called demons.  And so we begin forty days of wrestling with our demons as we attempt to give up chocolate or take on some other ascetic challenge.  But note the text from Matthew’s Gospel if that is your perception of Lent.  It is only after the forty days of fasting in the desert that the devil comes to Jesus.  Temptation waits with eager longing for the moment when we are most at risk and vulnerable and then leads us to the high mountain, to the pinnacle of the temple or to the bread basket.  These temptations are ours too.  We just don’t see them the same.  For who has not been tempted by cheap and easy food?  Who has not been tempted by destructive living? Who has not been tempted by the glory that power might bring?  Not Jesus, he overcomes the temptations and escapes from the wilderness.  Certainly he is not unscathed.  Wilderness is all around us.  It is just that they don’t look the same as they used to.  For wilderness can be the pages of social media of apparently happy lives broadcast continually to the device in our pocket when all we want to do is scream that all is not well.  It is sitting on a a street corner watching the world pass you by as invisible as the air.    Wilderness can be the world of must have when all you can manage is the day to day of getting by.  When you’re expected to understand a conversation but were lost after the first hello.  Or when the only sound you can make out is the background noise and the voices around you fade into the general hubbub.  Wilderness is a million jobs you cannot apply for and a million more you are overqualified for and the one you can do is taken by the kid who doesn’t care and wastes the weekend pay check against the wall of a pub.  Wilderness is when the skills you do have are deemed no longer important.  When your outward appearance says your doing fine, but inwardly you are crying out for help.  When you try to help those around you make a better life for themselves than you have and all you do is make the situation worse.  Wilderness is slowly pushing those whom you love away because you have forgotten how to say I love you.  Wilderness is not absence, but presence.  The worst wilderness is the one in the mind where internally everything makes complete sense, but none of those around you seem to understand any more.  Wilderness is feeling that you are on your own with no-one who can understand or help.  And at the end of the line come the temptations to take it all away with an easy fix, too good to be true offers and a loan that will never be repaid.  I, Daniel Blake is a wilderness book for it rescues us from our illusions.  If you’ve not read it or seen the film, then I recommend you do.  And I might just, wilderness allowing, revisit it by the time we get to Easter.

The devil wears the wilderness well

The devil wears the wilderness well.

Devil attacks when it’s easy – when we are vulnerable and in need.  Our basic desires are attacked with temptation:  Bread for the hungry.  Riches for the poor.  Power for the weak.
But is this true:  What is it the hungry truly need, but any meal.  What do the poor need for but simply the ability to pay their way.  Do the weak need anything but equality with others?

So should that be our desires are:  Bread for the glutton?  Riches for the materialist?  Power for the mercenary?
Remember that the devil offers not from what we need, but from our desires.  So a word of caution to those who would give up chocolate this lent in the hope of loosing a few pounds.  Is your self denial focussing upon God or actually a reflection of your own desires?

So it was then that in an attempt to simply pay her way in the world: Andrea an ambitious journalist graduate who was unable to get a foot in the employment door and who is at the end of a long search for jobs, arrives at Runway a fashion magazine to end all others.  It just so happens that the in the 2006 film, the Devil decided to wear Prada that day.

Andrea, (Anne Hathaway) is from what we might call the ordinary world of functional clothes and choosing what to wear based on the weather.  She ends up in the deepest deep end of the fashion world with no real understanding of what she has walked into.  And there, of course the devil is waiting.

Miranda, the head of this fashion icon in print is about to make a devious entrance.  As the imminent arrival is announced the office goes wild with activity in attempting to live up to her expectations.  Desks are cleared, shoes are changed, rails of clothes moved round and round, last minute make up applied – image is of course everything.

Miranda (Meryl Streep) or perhaps we might say the devil’s advocate decides to play a little game with Andrea.   If you want an unblemished apple, you pick one from the tree.  If you want an assistant who you can train, get one who doesn’t already think she knows the job.  If you want someone whose fashion you can tailor to your own designs?  Find someone who considers it irrelevant to their life.  If you are the devil in the job of temptation you make sure you strike at true weaknesses.  Andrea is a mystery – what is she doing here?  Clearly no interest in fashion and not intimidated by the name she doesn’t know.  Here’s a challenge for the devil, what might her weakness be, how best to wear her down?

Here’s to jobs that pay the rent is the toast that night with her bemused friends who cannot believe she has a job with ‘that woman’.  But Andi is determined not to get sucked into this world, she’ll be answering phones and getting coffee, surely a ball gown will not be required.  Andi begins her new job. The baptism of fire begins with a rude awakening at 6am.  Paris fashion week?  Andi seems to have no interest.  One pair size eight ‘Jimmy Choo’s’? (I had to look that up)  not a second glance.

Intersting, the girl is unmoved, so there is a need to increase the pressure.  Andi is called into the office and is unable to answer a baffling array of requests, most of which were probably meaningless.  But here comes the killer blow, no words, just a look, a long lingering look that says it all.  Andi retreats to her desk and slips quickly into the Jimmy Choo’s. Gotcha!  Time to slip home the advantage with a little dig or two:  How about size, weight?

Andi goes down with fighting talk: “Why should I change everything about me just because I have this job.”  To which the reply comes “Of course that’s what this multi-million dollar industry is about isn’t it – inner beauty.” Ouch.

We find the little demons aka ‘office staff’ running back and forth trying to live up to the expectations set so high they fail with almost comical regularity.  But amongst those who jump and twitch at her every comment or command there is a calm cool individual.  Not phased by the devilish requirements, neither overawed by the mere presence of this woman.  As Andrea is at the beginning of her downfall, can it be that in the heart of this place lies a little salvation?  Perhaps after all there is a glimpse of the Easter resurrection even in the midst of the dirty devil games of desire.

Life, Death and Neighbours

Magazine letter for October: A time when we are in the midst of the refurbishment of a church…

Life, Death and Neighbours.

That is I think, a pretty good description of humanity.  We live our life, always aware that it has a beginning and an end.  The art of living a life so fulfilled that at the end of it one can greet ones own death as a life-long companion and happily go on to the next world is a lifelong achievement, one which, I fear, few of us will master.  The description, Life, Death and Neighbours comes, not from a city centre community where everyone lives on top of each other, nor from a small rural community where everyone’s business is known to everyone else.  It comes, rather, from a community where the majority of contact with the outside world is shunned.  A place where people have sought solitude and actively moved away from what we might see as normal human interactions with neighbours.  It comes out of the Desert and derives from a saying by Anthony the Great who is known as the father of modern monasticism.

Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we win our brother, [or sister!!] we win God.  If we cause our brother [or sister!!] to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.

Those early pioneers of monasticism in the Egyptian desert and mountains were, perhaps ironically, not looking to flee the contact of others in the way you might expect someone to shut themselves away from the world because they cannot cope with it.  Instead the move into the desert was to find out what church was all about.  They were not convinced that the ordinary churches of their day were a fair representation of what it would be life to be a true follower of Christ and be truly in touch with ones God.

The harsh message of the desert is that in order for us to become true followers of Christ and to be able to dwell in the realm of God, (you might want to call this having a ‘spiritual life’) this wont happen unless we mend our relationships with our brothers and sisters, our neighbours and then sustain them.

I write of this because it is happening in our midst.  The church building in Greenfield is being renovated and the people are in a wilderness of sorts.  Instead of being a time for gloom and despondency, it is a time to heal the wounds between one another, for the people’s relationships to be ‘renovated’ as well.  A time to come closer together as a prayerful group and to look closely at what binds us together and what drives us apart.  It is about winning the neighbour as St. Anthony writes, however this doesn’t mean converting them by beating them about the brow.  It is rather about careful attention to their needs.  We must pay careful attention to the needs of all in our communities, to invite them in gently aware of each others brokenness and willing to grow together.  Only then will the church building be ready to receive us back and only then will we be ready to return to it renewed refreshed for the next stage of our journey.

(With material from the chapter ‘Life, Death and Neighbours’ in ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ by Rowan Williams)