In the movie, Desert Hearts, set in the 1950s,
a professor goes to stay at a desert ranch near Nevada.
Vivian needs to stay six weeks in order to establish residency and obtain a divorce.
She describes her ten year relationship with her husband as a professional marriage –
right friends, right furnishings, right politics – a meeting of the minds if not the hearts.
However, at this point in her life, she had come to realize she was seeking something more,
thirsting for something which was missing from her otherwise perfect, ordered life.
For Vivian, this desert time was a time of loss and grieving.
But, while in the desert, she meets someone who changes her life.
She unexpectedly, at her most vulnerable, falls in love with a young woman
and the love that she experiences in their relationship opens her heart in a way
which it has never been opened before.
When she felt she was most alone and vulnerable, grace, God’s love,
had the room to enter her heart and change her life.
This is what this time of Lent is about – recognizing that we are dwelling in the desert,
letting go of the neat order in our lives and being open to the gentle voice of the Spirit
challenging us to live life in a new way.
One of the major hopes voiced in our recent planning meeting was a desire,
on the part of many in the congregation, to deepen our spiritual lives.
Upon hearing this, the question I asked myself was:
we have a vibrant church community here,
active in social justice pursuits and rooted in worship...
so why do members still feel this hunger, this restlessness,
this longing for more in their spirits?
What is this longing, this sense of being incomplete?
We, by our very nature, are desert dwellers and this restlessness,
this sense of being incomplete, is part of being human.
This is what the Spirit spoke to my heart through today’s readings.
David, in Psalm 63, calls out “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you...
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
There is something built into each of us by our Creator, a sort of compass, if you will,
that constantly tries to point us towards home, toward God.
Most of us have seen cartoons of the person crawling across the desert floor
towards an oasis and water.
We live under the illusion that we live in the oasis, the land of water. But do we really?
Is it possible that we live in the desert?
Part of the difficulty we experience is that our North American culture, for the most part,
does not tolerate longing or unfulfilled desire.
In relation to this, I was recently reminded of the supper time struggle
in a house filled with children.
The hour before dinner is the hardest hour of the day.
It is the hour most likely to be filled with squabbles,
when tempers and tears are most close to the surface.
It is the time in which it is most difficult for parents to resist the pestering of the children
for treats – knowing that the children who have eaten cookies will not want vegetables
when they are finally prepared.
The junk food gives us a temporary sense of well-being while tricking our real appetite
into believing that it has been nourished.
Do you remember the next frame of the thirsty man in the desert cartoon?
He spots palm trees and runs toward the oasis only to find that it is a mirage.
So too can our spirits be tricked: personal wealth can spoil our appetite for community;
tax breaks can take the edge off our hunger for justice;
and investment benefits can dull our desire to limit multinationals
and preserve the environment.
And in our spiritual lives we have to guard against such trickery too.
We are faced with a bewildering barrage of books, DVDs, not to mention seminars,
workshops and retreats – all encouraging us to live more deeply
and to get more out of life.
And, while these things can be helpful,
we can get confused between the medium and the message.
They can become “cookies” for the spirit if they distract us from the true source
of our nourishment.
God alone can provide us with that which our hearts are yearning for.
There is an old Hasidic tale that says that while a child in the womb
God holds each babe close and whispers in its ear all the wonders of the universe
and how deeply it is loved.
Thus we each learn of our deep and sacred connection to God.
However, in the struggle to come into this world, in the struggle to survive,
this knowledge gets buried deep within the recesses of our hearts
and we spend our entire lives trying to remember it.
This is what we long for, this is what our restlessness desires.
Perhaps this is what the psalmist was referring to when he said
“I looked upon you in your sanctuary – beholding your power and glory...
your love is better than life...my soul is satisfied...my soul clings to you...”
In Lent, for five weeks, we focus on the conversion of our hearts in preparation for Easter.
Now, this is not the dramatic conversion of Paul,
not that I’m criticizing those aha moments which knock some of us
out of our everyday lives.
By conversion, I am speaking of a continual attitude of turning back to God.
We are called to experience and be transformed by God’s unconditional grace.
A grace that should be clear to others in the daily happenings of our lives!
I’m not saying that involvement in social justice, or the other good works we do,
isn’t good for the spirit.
And I’m not suggesting that we maintain our relationship to God
by virtue of our own achievements.
However, like the fig tree in today’s gospel we are called to produce fruit.
To show by our lives and our deeds from whom it is we receive our nurturance.
God is gracious and gives us the room to grow and food we need to again and again,
turn our faces to the warmth of the sun.
And, in response, like the fig tree, we are expected to produce.
We are challenged to be gardeners for our interior fig trees,
nurturing and watering our own spirits...
as well as the spirits of those in community with us.
In Lent, we focus on the conversion of our hearts towards God,
we say that when we turn to God we practice repentance.
Well, just what is penance anyway?
I grew up as a Roman Catholic and I remember the definition
drilled into our heads during catechism.
Conversion comes from the Greek metanoia – and means turning back to God.
And penance was the means by which you showed God
you were serious about the change in your life.
As you and I have committed to being companions on our spiritual journeys,
I decided to share a little about my soul’s path, my hunger for the Holy One.
I remember as a young girl wanting to be closer to God.
Life could be a bit rocky in our home and I felt a driving need to
“dwell in God’s house for all my days.”
And as a sign that I was serious about this desire,
I would pledge to God to be the very best Catholic I could be –
and for a while I would go to church every day, I’d pray, I’d fast,
I’d be helpful to my mother and siblings, I’d study hard...
but somehow I always felt that I hadn’t given enough.
Somehow I was always left with this thirst I was unable to fulfill.
I lived on this roller coaster of faith, always trying, giving up, trying again for years.
But over time, the urgency of the desire waned,
until by the time I was working as a Pastoral Associate in a Catholic parish,
I was simply a professional Christian.
I had lost that desire for new life, for closeness with my Creator.
It was only in turning to my theological studies,
in order to be a better Pastoral Associate,
that again that desire was rekindled within me.
At that time, it was the challenge of feminism and liberation theology,
that shook me out of my little oasis and reminded me that I was dwelling in the desert,
that I was still longing for something more.
As a result, I spent a few years discerning my baptismal call,
or as we called it my vocation, with a group of Franciscan Sisters.
It was late one night alone in the convent chapel that I experienced God again
in a profound way.
I was stunned and moved by the depth of connection.
In that dark, still room with only the tabernacle light,
symbol of Christ’s presence, burning brightly,
I was flooded by a sense of God’s closeness.
This experience pushed me to action...not because it was the thing to do,
but because I could not contain the joy I felt in that moment of connection with God...
that one moment in the temple healing every day alone.
Like Vivian, in the movie Desert Hearts, I moved to my personal desert.
I moved to Toronto to continue my theological studies at the graduate level.
And, while I loved many parts of my education,
it was here that I almost forgot my connection with the Creator.
I made the mistake that many theological students have made –
I equated my faith with my study.
I became lost in the maze of academic theology...
my faith became something to dissect, to understand.
But again, God’s grace satisfied my thirst.
It was here in Toronto’s desert that I met Ruth and fell in love.
This was a conversion moment for me –
the knowledge that someone could love me this deeply,
could care for my well-being this fully was a miracle –
for if Ruth could love me this deeply, then how much more could God,
in whom all love resides, love me too.
Like Vivian, in Desert Hearts, I had found new life in an unexpected way.
And, because of that love, I was called to change my life,
to re-embrace my faith once again.
We all have been gifted by presence of the Spirit,
and we are called to celebrate this grace in our lives.
We are called to constantly turn to God and to be transformed by the grace we receive.
Now each of us has a busy life...full of responsibilities, things to do...
how can we have desert hearts in the midst of the urban jungle?
Well, having a desert heart is living with the hunger
of desiring an ever deeper connection to God
and Lent is a great time to practice this attitude of the heart.
Before we can celebrate the joy of Easter dawn we have to learn to dwell in the desert.
Lent is a time in which we are encouraged to spend time reflecting on
what it is that distracts from our relationship with God
and to offer penance for our failures to love.
It is an opportunity to rededicate our hearts, and hands, to God.
We need to find places in which to carve out small moments to reconnect with God,
the Source of our being, the Source of Love.
So where do we find these precious moments?
Personally, I find the drive to the church is a good time to reflect –
the shower is another five minutes where my attention is free;
so too is my time walking my dog, Okwaho.
It doesn’t need to be time in a quiet room with a bible and a lit candle...
connect with God in what is available through your life.
This is a time when belonging to a community can be helpful.
We can be companions on the desert journey sharing the ways in which
we have created this sacred space in our lives.
And what about this penance anyway?
How do we practice the discipline of penance in Lent?
Penance is not rooted in an action, it is an attitude that we practice...
an attitude of interior, ongoing conversion.
It is recognizing in our daily lives that thirsting for God.
And it is living in a way that empowers others we meet in our daily lives
to desire to come to the waters and slake their thirst as well.
I challenge you, for the remaining days of our Lenten journey, to take a few minutes,
whatever you have available, to reflect on your relationship with our Creator.
What distracts you from hearing God’s call?
Children, work, relationships, commitments?
How do these very same things nurture you?
How can you hear God’s call within them?
How do you respond to these challenges?
Are you like the owner of the vineyard who wants to cut down the fig tree?
To rid yourself of that which takes a toll upon your resources?
Or will you be like the gardener who nurtures the fig tree by digging around its roots,
giving it space, watering it?
Can you be the gardener for your spirit?
This is the both the joy and challenge of living with a desert heart.