Lent 1: Into the Wilderness

Into Earth © Jan L. Richardson

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Reading from the Gospels, Lent 1, Year C (Feb. 14): Luke 4.1-13

From time to time I receive requests to create new artwork for a project. I love receiving these inquiries and am always grateful when they come my way. I sometimes find myself intrigued, however, by the assumptions within a request.

“We need it quite soon, but it’s pretty simple,” the lovely person might say.

So you can dive right in and it shouldn’t take you long, I hear between the lines.

I will tell you this: it’s often the pieces that look the simplest that take the longest to create. It seems counterintuitive, I know. It came as something of a surprise to me when I first began to learn it, and I sometimes wrestle with the truth of it still. How can an image that has only a few parts sometimes take so much time and space to make?

The answer lies on my drafting table, in the pile of discarded scraps that grows larger each time I work on a collage. The challenge of creating a piece of art lies not just in deciding what to include but also in discerning what to leave out. Every piece of art involves a process of choosing: not this, not this, not this. I can only find what belongs by clearing away everything that doesn’t.

This is no speedy endeavor.

On an intimate scale, it’s much like the kind of discernment that we see Jesus engaged in as we follow him into the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent. Still dripping with the waters of the Jordan in which his cousin John has just baptized him, Jesus sets off on a sojourn that continues his initiation into his public ministry. For forty days, Luke tells us, the devil besets Jesus with temptations. Jesus’ adversary is cunning in the way he presents choices designed to appeal to someone with a desire for earthly power: Want to rule the world? the devil asks; this is what you need to do; this is what belongs to you.

The devil’s temptations show that he knows the words of scripture well. Jesus’ responses, however, reveal that he knows more: he understands the heart of the sacred texts. And here in the wilderness, the one who has steeped himself in those texts begins to understand how the ancient words of God are to take flesh in him as the living and incarnate Word of God. Once, twice, and yet a third time: with every temptation, Jesus responds to the devil: not this, not this, not this. With each response he names what does not belong to him; with each answer he gains clarity about what he needs to empty himself of in order to be who he has come here to be.

When he emerges from this wild space, when he has completed this liminal time of fasting and praying and wrestling and waiting, Jesus has a clarity that could not have come otherwise. It has taken a long time, this emptying, this clearing out, this letting go of what doesn’t belong in order to find what does. But in taking the time, in venturing into that place, Jesus has found what he needs. As he enters his public ministry, he possesses a picture that is more complete, more whole. From discerning not this, not this, not this, he can now say, this.

Since I’m telling creative secrets this week, I’ll tell you this one as well: as I worked on this week’s collage, I was thinking of Joan Sauro’s lovely book Whole Earth Meditation, in which she offers an evocative exploration of the connections between the landscape within us and the landscape around us. I wound up going in a different direction with my reflection than I had anticipated—and thus we come to another not-so-secret secret of the creative process (and life): things don’t always go as planned. We may have to empty ourselves even of our attachment to our hopes, our expectations, our desired outcomes; sometimes we have to say not this to what we have most treasured, in order to make way for what truly belongs.

Yet Sauro’s words infuse this collage, are embedded in its landscape, and go with me as I cross the season into Lent: words about entering our inner terrain and finding the presence of God amidst the layers. Go to the place called barren, she writes. Stand in the place called empty. And you will find God there.

The Spirit of God breathes everywhere within you, just as in the beginning, filling light place and dark…green earth and dry. Thus does God renew the face of the earth. God always breaks through at your weakest point, where you least resist. God’s love grows, fullness upon fullness, where you crumble enough to give what is most dear. Your earth.

As we enter into the landscape that the season of Lent offers us, what’s stirring in your own interior terrain? What part of your earth might God be inviting you to open up or allow to give way? Is there something you need to let go of, something(s) to which you need to say not this, not this, not this, in order to make way for this? Is there a wild space—inner or outer—that would help you choose what you need for a more whole life?

May your Lenten path draw you deep into the landscape that God desires for you. Blessings.

[For earlier reflections on this story in Matthew and Mark, please see Lent 1: Discernment and Dessert in the Desert and Lent 1: A River Runs through Him. To use the “Into Earth” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Resources for the season: Looking toward Lent

10 Responses to “Lent 1: Into the Wilderness”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    I am propelled by this message today. Thank you.

  2. claire Says:

    This is such a treat — from beginning to end. Thank you. May you have a blessed Lent.

  3. Maureen Says:

    I like how you weave the “secrets” of art-making into your words about the Lenten season. Lovely.

    “Into Earth” is gorgeous.

  4. Kath Williamson Says:

    I have found this truly refreshing. Thank you very much.

  5. Sunrise Sister Says:

    As a collage artist I so welcome this beautiful reflection about the need to select what belongs and what HAS to go, HAS to go. The layers in my completed pieces often seem too crowded to me – it has been because I could NOT give up that piece, would NOT, just WOULD NOT and yet, the pieces I’ve enjoyed the most often have the least visible parts, lots of texture. What a wonderful metaphor you’ve asked me to reflect upon in this week beginning Lent.

    “Into Earth” is a stunning piece!

  6. Audrey Says:

    Thank you for sharing your reflections (this week–and each week). Our Mennonite Church USA resources for Lent 2010 focus on the theme, “Holding on and Letting go.” Your words help me with another angle and layer of integrating the Scripture and the theme, the prayer and hope with the great Story.

    Blessings on your continued ministry.

  7. Rachel Says:

    This message so completely *speaks to my condition.* I will check the Mennonite references for this year, Holding On and Letting Go as well, since that is my task this lent.

    I wanted to share with you a reading list from Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, compiled for a talk she gave on her artist’s journey. I am finding that so many people who I am learning from are connected, such as you and Christine Valters Paintner. I would like to introduce Susan to this circle.

  8. Elizabeth Nordquist Says:

    I count on and cherish your Lenten reflections… wilderness, yes; not this, yes; and also opportunity for the new, surprising and beautiful to emerge. once again, thanks!

  9. phyllis thomas Says:

    You must be reading my mind, Jan. These are struggles and pieces I’ve been thinking about since December and I still don’t know all the “not this” items, but my journey is continuing. Thank you for your precise and soulful writing on this for Lent. You’re a blessing! Into Earth is also exquisite as usual.

  10. Cathryn Says:

    Jan, I have linked your beautifully expressed thoughts. I am a new reader to your blog. This post profoundly affected me. I am coming off a couple of years of healing and wilderness and unchoosing a particularly harmful not this.

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