Lenten reflection Geoffrey Neal

When Holy Lent is truly a wilderness experience and a journey of the soul, then with Benedict XVI, who, in a New Year service, referred to the hope of believers to overcome present difficulties, we might expect the year 2009 to be a time of severe testing.

Christians are not only challenged, with everyone else, by the state of the political and economic world, but also by the assault upon religion that appears even on the London buses; but orthodox believers are faced too, by conflicts from within their Church, from synods and their like. If this year is to be a time of testing, then let us be ready to engage with it; if a journey, then let us make certain we know where we are going. The destination of our Lenten journey is the ‘new life’ and the new humanity that began with the trampling of death on the first Easter.

A challenging journey

On this journey there will be trials from which we must expect to learn the purpose of sacrifice, patience, humility and long-suffering, but above all to receive these as gifts of God’s providence, because our spiritual tradition has always claimed that the trials of the wilderness are ‘the crucible of humility’. St Gregory the Great in his commentary on the Book of Job said that these times of trial ‘will end in the fullness of perfection.’ He taught that a new believer would at first be strengthened with sweetness in the journey of the soul, but later there would come ‘a bitterness for testing and finally, ultimate joy, which is the consolation of the Holy Spirit.’

The great tradition of teachers and guides on the journey of the soul return to Our Lord’s own time of trial in the Judean wilderness and they bear witness to the truth that the greater the willingness to be pruned and stripped spiritually naked, the more the soul becomes free from illusion, pride and especially the comfortable mask of respectability.

The spiritual struggle

Each Lent we turn again to ponder the struggle of Jesus and the trials that he endured in the desert. What is particularly noticeable is the struggle between Jesus the contra-Adam, battling to keep within the intimate relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit, and his enemy the Devil, not just a non-thing, a vague sort of evil, but the person of Satan. Lhe struggle of Jesus is with a creature with a name, whom the Lord recognizes. It is Satan, who knows no fellowship of his own, but seeks to divide even the communion between the persons of the Blessed Lrinity

Lhe struggle of Jesus against the one he always referred to as Satan continued for his entire life. At the high point of Peter’s confession, ‘You are the Christ’, the Lord himself knew that Peter’s other response, ‘God forbid, that you should suffer’, was another situation where the prospect of conflict, failure or persecution loomed. Again, the Lord’s reply is decisive: ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me, and not on the side of God.’

In our own frailty, we may find the wisdom of so many of the saints who also bear witness that the ‘prince of this world’ has a personal name, Satan, and to recognize him and unmask him is the challenge of the spiritual struggle. \ND\