Excerpted from the Council’s 2019 Lenten Reflection Guide for Lectionary Year C.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the
A decade ago I read a fascinating article on a “wilderness experiment” conducted by German researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. The researchers had a group of subjects trek several hours through one of two wilderness sites: heavy forest in Germany or the southern Sahara. They were given a single instruction: to walk as straight a line as possible.
The results? Despite their best attempts at walking the straight line, most of the trekkers ended up walking in circles, completely unaware that they were doing so. But there was an interesting exception. Those who could see the light of the sun or the moon were able to walk fairly straight.
Luke 4:1-13 is the classic “Jesus tested in the wilderness” story, the scriptural doorway through which we enter the Lenten season year after year. It was during Lent that I read the article about the wilderness circle walkers, and my first thought was, yes, of course—by following the light of the Son, we ourselves will find the straight path forward, through whatever spiritual wilderness we might be immersed in. After all, Jesus’ time in the wilderness was marked by a perfectly straight walk through the demonic testing to which he was subjected, by keeping an unwavering gaze on the One Light that sustained and led him.
The problem was, my tidy conclusion was just that: a bit too neat—too much of a straight line—to fit into my own circular wilderness “experiments,” and those of my friends and loved ones. Keeping our eyes on the Son didn’t always lead to the money to buy groceries for our kids, or prevent a diagnosis that we’d been dreading, or that loss that cut life into a jagged wound of before and after. And sometimes, the Son simply wasn’t visible. At all.
Yet, the more I thought about the wilderness experiment and straight lines and stumbling over one’s own path, the more I realized: Yes, we might end up going in a circle, but the circle brings us to the place of return, the place where it’s possible to get our bearings and begin anew on the journey. And isn’t that the holy ground where God is found?
T.S. Eliot once wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” That place, ultimately, is God. In this Lenten season, we may find ourselves tripping over our own feet in what seems an endless circle through the wilderness, or perhaps we’ll walk straight through, head held high and eyes on the prize. Whatever our journey, let us remember that God is not only with us as we make our way, God is the journey itself.