“God does not provide us with a roadmap, but only a compass.”
(Gospel Reading – Mark 1:12-15)
We say the Season of Lent lasts forty days, as the Latin word, ‘Quadragesima” suggests. When I was a young seminarian – skeptical as I was – I took the calendar and wanted to make sure for myself if there were indeed 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. To my surprise, I found there are actually 47 days. I had reasons to be skeptical, after all! So I had a question for the teacher of liturgy, who, of course, was taken by surprise. Later he came up with a meaningful explanation: even on Sundays in Lent, we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord, as we do every Sunday; and hence they are not counted as days of fasting and penance. So Lent does have forty weekdays of fasting and penance!
‘Forty’ is symbolic of a generation, a lifetime. The people of Israel walked in the wilderness for forty years (Dt 8:2). Practically, it was a new generation that entered ‘the Promised Land’ (Num 32:13). The number forty symbolizes a time of prayer, as the duration that Moses spent in communion with God on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:17-18; 34-28). It symbolizes every person’s journey to the mount of God as Elijah “walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, God’s mountain” (1Kings 19:8). It is this journey that the Season of Lent reminds us of! It is the nature of this journey that the gospel reading of today narrates to us from the life of Jesus.
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent the liturgy of the word invites us to meditate on the temptations of Jesus. The synoptic gospels (Mk, Mt, Lk) capture at the beginning of the public of ministry of Jesus what John narrates as a lifetime of discernment of the will of the Father (read Jn 6:15, 30-31; 7:3). The narrative of the temptations of Jesus in the synoptic gospels resembles those of the people of Israel in the wilderness. On another level, in Jesus “we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Therefore, the temptations of Jesus are also our own. The gospel of today reminds us that the journey of our life is often marked by trials and temptations, even as the Spirit leads us forward.
A few days ago I read this sentence: “God does not provide us with a roadmap, but only a compass.”
Roadmap and Compass
God does not provide us with a definite roadmap. Roadmaps (like the GPRS) often offer definite path ways, clear landmarks, and indications of what we can expect along the way in terms of terrains and distances. When Yahweh led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He did not offer them a roadmap. That is why it took them forty years of meandering in the desert to reach “the Promised Land.” Roadmaps might tend to force us focus on the end of the journey rather than the process involved in the journey. And with the help of roadmaps we may be tempted to take short-cuts.
God provides us with a compass – an inner compass. It simply shows us the general direction towards the North Pole – the goal of my life. In the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, we can say that the compass simply invites me to “share in the life of God”. This is the goal of my life.
There are times in my life when I forget the compass and its direction. I just forget to tune myself to it. Or I refuse to be led by it. I am too busy; I am not interested; I make wrong choices on the path. I go chasing butterflies on the side-walks of life, I get distracted. One advantage of the compass is that wherever I am right now, I can restart my journey right from where I am – here and now. The season of Lent simply invites us to pay attention to the compass, and to begin our journey anew.
Temptation: a moment of discernment
Since the compass only shows the direction, I need to constantly discern the path I need to take. The unchanging north direction of the compass is that I must be in union with God, but God does not prescribe how I am expected to achieve that. Jesus too was born with a compass: to share the love of God with humanity and to establish the reign of God in the hearts of all. I don’t think, the path was very clear to him. Jesus had to discern the path – how he was going to build the Kingdom of God. This was the core of his temptations. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we reflect on the temptations of Jesus. This year, the gospel reading from Mark is too brief about the temptations. Interestingly, Mark speaks of temptations in general without describing them in three categories as Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) do. Being generic, the Markan version brings out the aspect of discernment. Interestingly, the Gospels tell us that “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness…. (Mk 1:12)” Temptation is a moment of discerning genuine paths, with the help of the Spirit, avoiding shortcuts that seem easy and attractive. This was the temptation of Jesus. This is our own temptation.
Though the synoptic Gospels mention the temptations of Jesus right in the beginning of his public ministry, it is not to be understood that it was the only occasion when Jesus was ‘tempted’. In the Gospel of John the temptations are spread out very purposefully (read Jn 6:15, 30-31; 7:3). The admonition of Peter (Mk 8:31-33), agony in the garden before the passion (Mk 14:36), and even the feeling of abandonment expressed by Jesus on the cross (Mk 15:34) could be considered some of the other moments of temptation for Jesus. Jesus shows us also how these moments could be handled. He invites us to be open to God.
The meaningful way of negotiating temptations is what is called discernment. Where is the compass directing me to? Has my vision become too blur? Discernment is not just what I do when I have to make an important decision in my life. It is a constant exercise of tuning my choices towards the direction of the compass. St Ignatius proposes ‘the daily examen’ as a useful means to do this.
The Examen: tuning in to the direction of the compass
The examen is a very powerful means to help us focus on God. This examen, can be seen in five steps.
Step 1. Become aware of God’s presence. Look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit. The day may seem confusing to you—a blur, a jumble, a muddle. Ask God to bring clarity and understanding.
Step 2. Review the day with gratitude. Walk through your day in the presence of God and note its joys and delights. Focus on the day’s gifts. Look at the work you did, the people you interacted with. What did you receive from these people? What did you give them? Pay attention to small things—the food you ate, the sights you saw, and other seemingly small pleasures. God is in the details.
Step 3. Pay attention to your emotions. One of St. Ignatius’s great insights was that we detect the presence of the Spirit of God in the movements of our emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Boredom? Elation? Resentment? Compassion? Anger? Confidence? What is God saying through these feelings? God will most likely show you some ways that you fell short. Take note of these sins and faults. But look deeply for other implications. Does a feeling of frustration perhaps mean that God wants you consider a new direction in some area of your work? Are you concerned about a friend? Perhaps you should reach out to her in some way.
Step 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important. It may involve a feeling—positive or negative. It may be a significant encounter with another person or a vivid moment of pleasure or peace. Or it may be something that seems rather insignificant. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart—whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
Step 5. Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for tomorrow’s challenges. Pay attention to the feelings that surface as you survey what’s coming up. Are you doubtful? Cheerful? Apprehensive? Full of delighted anticipation? Allow these feelings to turn into prayer. Seek God’s guidance. Ask him for help and understanding. Pray for hope. Have a conversation with Jesus. End the Daily Examen with the Our Father.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.