Today is the second Sunday of Lent. We have already spent 10 days in the wilderness with Christ, and the wild beasts are beginning to approach, looking to feed us. No longer are they put off by the presence of strangers in their environment. Our feet are becoming toughened by the dust of the desert, and our eyes accustomed to the squint required to keep the sand out of our eyes.
But what difference does it make that Jesus Christ has already passed through the wilderness? What light does Julian cast on life in the wilderness?
There is much in Julian’s experience that evokes the wilderness. Life as an anchorite, with its willed isolation from everyday companionship, would seem to many like a casting of oneself into the wilderness. The experiences on her sickbed – the pain and the retreating from her experience of those around her – also have something of the wilderness about them in that she is cast into them, and through them into extremes of suffering. Pain takes the place of heat, and suffering that of thirst. In both her initial suffering and her subsequent anchorhold, Julian invokes Christ as her companion, first taking the agony of his crucifixion as the focus of her attention in her own suffering, and then inviting her courteous Lord to join her and sustain her in contemplating him during the years of her anchorhold.
Jesus’s experience in the wilderness was that of a young man, newly confronted with his true identity and exploring the reality behind the words left ringing his ears after his cousin, always something of an oddball, insisted on immersing him in the River Jordan. Only by slow and painful degrees did he come to see that the reality to which his experience in the river pointed had accompanied into the dust and heat of the palestine desert. That strikes me as the reality behind the fabulous description of his interactions with the devil. Each temptation represents a mode in which his connection with the divine could be used to modify, to soften the harshness of his incarnate experience. He refuses each of them, preferring instead to stand in solidarity with his fellow Jews, moving towards God in the way given to Moses in his desert encounter with God. In this slow, patient process of encounter and re-encounter, Jesus discovers and learns to live out the relationship with the Creator which will sustain him, through his ministry, through the cross and the tomb to the garden of the resurrection and on to the hilltop of the ascension.
Christ is Julian’s wilderness: he constitutes it and saturates it utterly with his presence. This does not prevent it from being authentically an experience of wilderness, as is clear from her agonies of body, mind, and spirit. But at every point, the reality of God’s invitation to participate in the loving dance of perichoresis is waiting to break in and sweep her up in its ecstatic embrace.
There is much more to explore in both, as I intend to over the remaining days of lent. A journey with interesting companions lies ahead.