Voices from the Desert
Today's Stational church is none other than the Lateran Basilica, the Cathedral church of the See of Rome. It stands on the site of the palace of the Laterani on the Coelian Hill which belonged to the emperor Constantine's wife, Fausta. After Constantine's conversion to Christianity he gave the palace to the Bishop of Rome, the pope, as his private residence and the emperor also founded the basilica. The church was consecrated by Pope St Sylvester in 324, the first publicly consecrated church in Christian history and hence its pre-eminence as the 'Head of all the churches of Rome and the world'. It was only in the 12th-century that its baptistry was given the name of St John the Baptist and this came to popularly dominate its original dedication to the Saviour. Five ecumenical Councils were held in the basilica and the adjoining palace and it is still the site for major liturgical events of the See of Rome, at which her bishop, the Pope, presides. It is the Stational church for the First Sunday of Lent because the people of Rome gathered there with him to begin the penitential season proper, which at one time, only began on this day. In the current Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the catechumens still gather around the bishop in the cathedral church, on this Sunday, and undergo the Rite of Election. Thus it is proper and right that this should be the Stational church.
Today's Gospel from St Mark is characteristically brief and succinct. Compared to other accounts of the tempation of Christ in the desert, we are only told that it happened, that Our Lord was in the desert for forty days with wild beasts and that angels ministered to him; nothing is said of the kind of temptations. There are many excellent reflections, homilies and exegetical commentaries on this passage (Mk 1:12-15) and I am sure you have already read them and others. Hence, I do not wish to add any more to the rich fare already available!
What I do wish to offer is some sayings from the Desert Fathers, those ancient fathers and mothers of monasticism who followed Christ into the desert and awaited His return there. They took to the Egyptian desert and often lived as hermits, solitary souls in a place of solitude, where they undertook a life of asceticism and battled with the sources of sin in the human heart. As we too intensify our spiritual warfare during Lent, we do well to learn from these spiritual masters who spent their lifetime in the desert, tempted as Jesus was in the desert, and battling against the wiles of Satan. Like Our Lord, they too lived among the wild beasts and indeed there are many stories of their associations with them and how angels and even the animals ministered to them.
Thankfully, their wisdom and experience, which can teach us so much, has been written down and their influence from about the 4th-century in Christianity has been unabated, touching every strand of Christian monasticism and religious life and affecting such great saints as Augustine, Benedict and Aquinas.
So, today we too are driven into the desert by the Spirit and seek the wisdom of these Egyptian hermits, asking them how they battled with the temptations that plague the human heart. Armed with their stories and following their sage advice, we too, by the grace of God and with the help and example of Christ can "rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil and so share His Paschal meal in purity of heart" (Preface for the First Sunday of Lent).
"Poeman said, 'To be on guard, to meditate within, to judge with discernment: these are three works of the soul.'
A brother asked him, 'How ought we to live?' Poeman replied, 'We have seen the example of Daniel. They accused him of nothing except that he served his God.' The same hermit said, 'Poverty, suffering and wise discernment are the three parts of a hermit's life. It is written that there were these three, Noah, Job and Daniel. Noah is the type of those who own nothing, Job of those who are suffering, Daniel of those who judge wisely. Where there are these three qualities, there God dwells.'
Poeman also said, 'There is no greater love than that you should lay down your life for your neighbour. When you hear a complaint against you and you struggle with yourself, and do not begin to complain in return, when you bear an injury with patience and do not look for revenge, that is when you lay down your life for your neighbour'.
Syncletica said, 'When the devil does not use the goad of poverty to tempt us, he uses wealth for the same purpose. When he cannot win by scorn and mockery, he tries praise and flattery. If he cannot win by giving health, he tries illness. If he cannot win by comfort, he tries to ruin the soul by vexations that lead us to act against our monastic vows. He inflicts severe sickness on people whom he wants to tempt and so makes them weak, and thereby shakes the love they feel towards God. But although the body is shattered and running a high temperature and thirsting unbearably, yet you, who endure all this, are a sinner; you should therefore remember the punishment of the next world, the everlasting fire, the torments of judgement. Then you will not fail in the sufferings of this present time, indeed you should rejoice because God has visited you. Keep saying the famous text: "The Lord has chastened and corrected me: but he hath not given me over unto death" (Ps 118:18). Iron is cleaned of rust by fire. If you are righteous and suffer, you grow to a higher sanctity. Gold is tested by fire. When a messenger from Satan is given to you to be a thorn in your flesh, lift up your heart, for you have received a gift like that of St Paul... So let this kind of self-discipline test your souls, for our enemy is always in sight'."
O Saviour of the world, save us and help us: we humbly beseech thee, O Lord! May St John the Baptist pray for us.
The photo above is from the north window of my former school chapel, St Joseph's Institution in Singapore. It depicts the Baptism of the Lord - which fittingly features the Saviour and the Baptist in whose honour today's Stational church is dedicated. But notice that the main image flows into a smaller roundel below which depicts emblems of the Lord's temptation in the desert. Can you spot Satan?