Into the Desert (between Harvard and Notre Dame)

Notre Dame, Indiana. Lent is now upon us, and Christians everywhere, many of us with hint of Wednesday’s ashes still upon us, are summoned to the desert: to pray; to fast; to do works of charity – and by all of that, to convert our lives, to turn back to God, to walk with Jesus in ministry and on his way to Jerusalem.

Jesus in the Desert

In the Lectionary of readings used at Mass this year, we are following the Gospel according to Mark, known for his brevity, saying less, drawing us into the stark pronouncements of the Gospel. This Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, we have Mark’s primal version of the time in the desert:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (1.12-13)

Matthew and Luke, later on, elaborate this scene with the famous three temptations, but Mark says nothing of that sort. He gives us the scene in a minimal form: a return to nature, the beasts; Satan; the angels; and there, a still silent Jesus who will soon find his voice. It is left to us to imagine what happened to Jesus there, that he could then come out, his voice loosed:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (1.14-15)

This is, in a way, what Lent is about: withdrawal and reflection, in order to return, preaching the kingdom — God’s, not ours, not our nation’s — and, as Mark emphasizes twice, the Good News, for this time, our time. Where do we find our voice, in 2018, the age of crass capitalism, political cruelty, a rising tide of violence, relentless attacks on the weakest members of society at home and abroad, and it seems – and I include myself here – too many would-be, could-be religious leaders who should be speaking up, confronting the injustice of our times, but who instead stay quietly on the margins.

What does Satan want of us? What are the angels helping us toward?

This is therefore a time for discernment. Noting this should not be surprising from a Jesuit, for Ignatius Loyola would surely have looked to this quintessential Gospel passage in deciphering his own experience and crafting his Exercises: we are vulnerable, reduced to our natural state, between Satan and ministering angels. The point of prayer, fasting, and charity is to let go enough to be able to ask, What’s next? What will I proclaim?

As my Lenten penance, or at least part of it, in these next weeks I will try to pose some brief blogs here, in my new series of posts (2017-  ), “On the Inner Edge.” I will write these posts from my sabbatical refuge, on the great and expansive campus of Notre Dame, as even a Jesuit must admit, our most visibly Catholic university, and as I look back to Harvard, where I have been on the faculty for nearly 13 years now (after 21 years as Boston College, our great and flourishing Jesuit university).

For a few weeks, we need to imagine ourselves in the desert, seeing the world as Jesus must have seen it. Notre Dame isn’t a desert — too culturally and intellectually rich and alive — nor is Harvard, though wealth and power do not make either immune to the temptations of power, pride, and ego.

I will dig deeper into what this means, over the weeks of Lent, pondering a series of issues (though not necessarily in this order): what universities are for; why people like me teach and write books; what Americans are for in today’s world; what we are or should be about in a world that is religiously diverse, permanently so, yet also torn by secularism, of the Godless and religious kinds; what it means to be a priest and a Jesuit (after 40 years of the first, and 50 years of the second); what then to say to Donald Trump and his collaborators? I will speak to my own experience but, I hope, in a way that might be of interest to you, my readers.

My very next post, coming soon, will reflect on Notre Dame and Harvard, in Lent 2018.