The long, hot summer
Ash Wednesday arrived one day after the storm. The skies had cleared but still bore traces of the turbulence of the previous days, which, while without gale-force winds, unleashed an endless pour of rain, causing floods and landslides.
Little patches of rainclouds, which I knew would fade before the night, clung on to a corner of a sky already filling with light.
Enough windiness remained, however, to make our clothes cling to our bodies.
The wife and I chose to have our foreheads lined with ash in the evening, which turned out to be an unsound decision, because all the others had that plan, their schedules not allowing them any slack to hie off to a church for the ash at an earlier hour.
Such that we could hardly find a pew where we could sit in pious comfort.
Serendipitously, we found space to slip into, but just enough.
I sat next to a father feeding an infant.
The wife, who suspected that I had shingles, reminded me to keep away from them.
I did, although I felt that I only had a skin allergy.
A minor kerfuffle ensued during the distribution of the ash.
Those who had no seats and were kept outside decided to cut in, shunting those who had lined up first into the side.
One of Lent’s ironies.
How fitting the words of the lay minister as he laid the ash on their foreheads, with, I hoped, a little more force, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
I acknowledge that temptations turn up even in church, to which one has come to acknowledge one’s littleness before God.
Temptation to jostle against others for a comfortable pew or to receive Communion first, temptation to look at improperly dressed women or to daydream while the great drama of salvation, the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, unfolds.
One knows that one must resist these temptations, and especially the more serious others that periodically visit.
The inner life too has its meteorological changes, a weather at times fair, at times inclement, occasionally with winds fanned by whale-gross fins.
Of this it served as reminder, the blustery first day of Lent, the liturgical season commemorating the time that Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism to prepare for his mission.
In his Gospel, in his usual compact manner, Mark writes of that period in Jesus’ life.
“At once the Spirit drove (Jesus) out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Similarly, the great St. Anthony, who in imitation of Christ repaired to the Egyptian desert, faced temptations of such a scale as to become the subject of many a work in Western art and even of a book by the French writer Gustave Flaubert.
(Incidentally, St. Anthony is prayed to for his intercession in the healing of skin diseases, including shingles.)
Demons came to Anthony disguised as a centaur and a satyr.
A plate of silver coins would suddenly come into view in his path. In his cave, little devils would beat him up within an inch of his life, forcing his servant to carry him out of the cave.
When he returned, the fiends in the form of wild beasts proceeded to tear him up into shreds until a bright light from God flashed and drove them away.
When Anthony asked Him where he was all this time, God said that he had always been there, observing how bravely Anthony had fought his battles.
Lent evokes the desert where Jesus and Anthony contended with temptation.
It helps that in this part of the world the forty days of Lent roll by in dry, hot weather, except for freak typhoons.
The sweltering days and sultry nights, however, are no match to the wilderness that the soul strays into on its way to God, a barrenness so dry that one is prompted to exclaim with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”
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