Saint Ignatius suggested we may hear God’s voice more clearly if we imagine ourselves in the midst of Gospel stories we are reading.
I love to follow this advice. It enables us to divert our eyes from the fading prints of Salman’s Head of Christ and begin to see the real Jesus. As we imagine ourselves in the crowds who witnessed his baptism, or place ourselves in the synagogue as Jesus declares “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:18:21), we begin to see a man of extraordinary charisma. Unlike the blond Christ on stained glass windows, we may behold an actual brass age Palestinian: a man with brown skin glowing with sweat, unruly black hair, and large biceps developed by his years as a laborer. We may behold the man whose powerful presence and contagious compassion attracted curious crowds wherever he walked.
Sometimes the stories we read take Jesus away from the adoring crowds. In Matthew 4, after his baptism, he is led by the spirit into the wilderness.
I don’t have any difficulty imagining the Palestinian wilderness, which I visited as a young man in 1974. It is truly desolate with pale, jagged rocks and rugged mountains, so much like the American southwest desert. In 1969 Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike visited the wilderness where Jesus prayed. Pike got lost, attempted to keep hydrated by drinking his own urine, and prayed for help. His body was found days later as he knelt against a rock in a position of prayer.
Clearly it is no small thing to go into this wilderness to pray. And it’s daunting just to imagine yourself, in Ignatian contemplation, at Jesus’ side. There are no other witnesses to hide behind. Just miles of arid emptiness and silent rocks.
In my mind’s eye I see Jesus sitting on one of those rocks. He is looking straight ahead and I wonder if he is praying. Or perhaps he is thinking of the cool waters of his recent baptism, now so far away.
I move slowly toward him, wincing as sharp rocks press into my Sketchers, and sit on a boulder a few feet from Jesus. Jesus continues to sit quietly and so do I.
Long moments pass and our shadows disappear as the sun climbs high over head. Beads of sweat begin to collect on Jesus brown forehead.
I glance at my Apple Watch to see how much time has passed. I begin to wonder how much longer we will be sitting silently on unforgiving rocks and the thought jumps into my head that Jesus is supposed to be here for forty days. I gasp. Is that, I wonder, a literal forty days or a metaphorical way of saying “a long time.” And, if so how long?
Jesus turns his head toward me and I sense both his loneliness and his compassion. But we continue to sit in silence.
Over head birds of prey are circling. Probably seeking some distant carrion, I tell myself. Jesus and I are clearly too alive to tempt birds who feast on decomposing flesh. I look at Jesus for reassurance but he has closed his eyes in prayer.
Good idea, I think. I try to remember devotional words from Luther’s Small Catechism. The words of the Lord’s prayer spin through my mind, and so does the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Usually the words are a great comfort to me, but I’m a little self-conscious thinking them with Jesus so close. Can he hear me? Are my prayers intruding on his?
I continue to sit quietly, resenting the rock beneath my uncomfortable backside. My hungry stomach begins to grumble and thoughts of the Bagel Emporium menu push the Jesus prayer out of my head.
Cinnamon raisin, poppy seed, blueberry, all sorts of bagels danced in my head. I was sure the rumbling in my stomach could be heard over the desert wind. Jesus turned toward me again.
“Are you okay?” he asks gently. I am startled by the sound of his voice.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’d be happy to spring for a dozen bagels if there’s a bakery nearby.”
Jesus smiled. “I’m good,” he said.
We had been sitting for a long time and Jesus stood up, stretching his arms. I was grateful for the cue and lifted my aching bums from the sharp rock.
Jesus walked slowly toward a crevasse in the rocks and I followed him cautiously. At the bottom of the chasm was a small trickle of blue water. I suddenly realized I was thirstier than hungry and began to calculate a safe route down the cliff to get to the water. I am not a rock climber and I could foresee a dangerous and perhaps fatal descent.
Jesus looked at me and I was sure he was reading my mind.
“Jesus,” I said, “that’s a long way down. I guess it would take a miracle to get to the bottom safely.”
Jesus smiled. “Then forget it,” he said. He turned and walked back to the rocks where we were sitting. Reluctantly, I leaned against my rock and tried to shift positions so my ass wouldn’t fall asleep.
Jesus closed his eyes again and visions of Fiji water bottles and egg bagels pushed the Jesus Prayer out of my head.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must be like for Jesus as he sat in the wilderness awaiting his tempter.
Emboldened by our recent exchanges, I cleared my throat. Jesus turned toward me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking what it’s like for you, the Son of God who was present at the creation of the universe, all this power at your fingertips.”
Jesus looked at me but did not respond.
“And here you are, alone in the desert, no food, no water, no acolytes, no assistants or aides.”
Jesus did not respond. I cleared my throat again.
“I mean, look at all the earthly power that has been amassed in your name. Emperors, monarchs, popes, presidents, television evangelists, superchurch pastors.”
Jesus continued to look at me silently.
I shifted uneasily on my rock.
“I mean, doesn’t it drive you crazy, all this power humans have seized in your name while you – the ultimate power in the universe – sit here on a rock in the Palestinian desert?”
Jesus was silent.
“It doesn’t make you crazy?” I persisted.
Jesus turned away from me.
“Nah,” he said.
We spent the next hour sitting in silence. The silence was putting me on edge and I began to plan my exit from this Ignatian revelry that was bringing me closer to the real Jesus.
I leaned against my rock for a few more minutes and then stood to signal my ethereal departure. Jesus turned to me one last time.
“It’s been real, Jesus,” I said, “and I feel I’ve gotten closer to you than ever before.”
“But I gotta ask,” I said. “Weren’t you supposed to be tempted by the Devil here?”
Jesus smiled again.
“Oh? You missed him?”
He closed his eyes and turned away from me.
I opened my eyes, grabbed a water bottle out of the fridge, and hopped in the car for a brief drive to Bagel Emporium.