Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lenten Thoughts about Comfort and Happiness

Through Lent – and even for weeks before – I’ve been immersed in scripture and story that speak to the spiritual journey through the wilderness. Most of us don’t choose spiritual wilderness as much as spiritual wilderness chooses us. In the run of life, we find ourselves in places that feel unexpected, untamed, and uncomfortable.

Last week, I spent several days with fellow pilgrims in a wilderness setting at the Benedictine monastery in Pecos, New Mexico. The setting is not primitive, but it is rustic in a sense. The place is not dangerous – the bears, mountain lions, and feral dogs that dwell in the surrounding mountains notwithstanding – but wilderness tends to put us in a place where we are out of control . . . where we are not entirely comfortable.

The stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd – 5th centuries are set in the wilderness of Egypt and the Middle East. The lives of these faithful Christians testify to how life can be harsh and demanding; yet, in that harshness their lives were transformed. In many respects, the very harshness of the surroundings brought to the surface their own darkness. They dealt with their inner darkness in order to be more fully the persons God created them to be.

Some of the Christian mystics have called the harsh and difficult settings of our lives our “furnace of transformation.” In other words, the discomforts of life become the fire that purifies us. The aspects of life that are beyond our control become the things that bring to light the illusions we carry. Wilderness itself, while not necessarily comfortable, is a place in which we learn to lean more fully into God and into the interior resources that God has placed within each one of us.

Frankly, this flies in the face of what contemporary religion, especially Christianity, has come to embrace. Christianity is offered as a path to happiness, a road to personal fulfillment, the way to make a good life even better.

Jesus, we are told, does not want us to be unsuccessful, but rather wants us to have health, wealth, and only good and pleasant experiences. Those who experience lack, disease, or discomfort must be lacking proper belief, or be poor in prayer, or be unfaithful to this Jesus.

[Apparently, there is another “Jesus” on the loose who did not experience being run out of town by local authorities, who was not cursed by the religious crowd, who was not betrayed by his closest friends, and who did not end up crucified on a cross between criminals.]

Preachers posit all light and no darkness, all comfort and no discomfort, all abundance and no emptiness, all happiness and no sorrow.

For a few days now, I’ve had in mind these words of C. S. Lewis, sent to me by a long-time friend. I ponder them in light of Lent and in light of my own expectations of the spiritual life. Try them on for yourself.

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.
I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.
If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,
I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
(C. S. Lewis)

These seem to me to be important words as we journey through Lenten wilderness with Jesus, toward death and the cross, and onward to the empty tomb.

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