As we come again to the beginning of Lent, a question we all perhaps tend to ask ourselves is: “What does God desire from me?” From my own experience and from my relations with others, it seems to me that we have an ingrained tendency to think we need to “measure up” to a standard in order to please God. And therefore Lent, rather than being a joyful time of accompanying Christ through the desert and preparing to celebrate the great mystery of his Passion and Resurrection, becomes a prolonged experience of our own failure and inadequacy.
It seems to me that this deep ingrained tendency comes, not primarily from our upbringing, from past experiences, etc., though all of this plays a role, but from a profound heart-wound rooted deep in original sin. We have a fractured image of our heavenly Father, and we tend to project on him our own ideas of justice, anger, righteousness, and so many other things. He is no longer recognized as pure Love, as an overflowing Fountain of Gift, yearning to pour out into us the fullness of his joy and to unite us intimately to himself. Rather, he is a Lawgiver jealous of his prerogatives, he is a strict Judge to whom we can never quite measure up.
Adam and Eve in the beginning experienced this temptation to fall away from the true image of the Father and into the false image of a distant and vengeful God. The were created, purely and gratuitously, by God in a state of perfect childlike dependency and freedom. All things were theirs, the whole of creation, the gift of one another, because God was theirs and entirely given to them. Within the relationship with such a loving Father, all things we contained, complete and abundant in overflowing fullness.
Yet the serpent came to trick them. And what did he attack? Precisely their image of God. “If you would be like God…then you must grasp and possess and control. Take the fruit. For God is grasping it and not allowing you to have it.” Obedience is then seen as a submission to a superior power, and no longer as simple receiving of the gift as the Giver unreservedly bestows it. For every gift bears in itself its own interior meaning, and obedience simply means receiving the gift as it is given, with all that its mystery and beauty entails.
When Adam and Eve grasp, they fall away from the truth of childhood and their image of the loving Father is broken and obscured. When Lent invites us to “enter into the desert” again, we find ourselves facing up to the phantoms of our own distorted image of God. But perhaps our tendency is to force our way towards greater righteousness through our own efforts, fueled, unknowingly, by our false image of our Father. Or maybe we simply settle for living in a more peripheral place, where we are numb, at least to some degree, to the deepest truth alive in our hearts. But this is a place where God lovingly awaits us, yearning to touch us with his love and to heal our hearts, so that, made pure by his love, we may gaze upon him as he truly is: as the most loving Father, as the Source of all love, as Love himself.
The desert, therefore, is really only meant to be a prelude to the garden. Our world has, in a sense, become a desert as a result of original sin. The dry and arid landscape speaks of our exile from the paradise in which God first created us. Yet, as he showed in the history of the chosen people so long ago, God desires to deliver us from this place of slavery (slavery from our false image of him, from our fears, from the sins and disorders which weigh us down) and to lead us on a journey through the desert. There he wants to meet us, Heart-to-heart, and to unite himself to us in intimate love. He wants to re-introduce us into the joyful reality of our childhood before him. He wants to unite us to himself as a beloved spouse. It is in this rediscovery that we find the desert beginning to bloom, and the dry landscape beginning to flow with springs of water.
And this desert is the mystery of our own heart, where God dwells, ever yearning to unleash to springs of living water flowing unceasingly from his own merciful Heart, the Wellspring of endless Joy.
So maybe our primary focus this Lent should be, not so much on what we are “doing,” nor even on what things keep us away from being what we would like to be. Rather, it should be on rediscovering this deep truth that is already present and alive in our heart. God is already, always our loving Father, and we are always his beloved child. At every moment he looks upon us with love and tenderness, repeating, “You are my beloved child, in whom my soul delights.” At every moment he gives birth to us anew from the womb of his eternal Love.
If we yearn for true freedom, it will not ultimately be found through our own efforts and struggles, but flowing as a pure gift from the loving Heart of our heavenly Father. All else, all our actions and resolutions, all our daily efforts to grow in love and to separate ourselves from the things that separate us from him, find their meaning only here. They reveal their truth in flowing from and returning to the wellspring of childhood, which is the bosom of our heavenly Father.
So the question, perhaps, that we should ask ourselves is not: “What does God desire from me?” but “What does God desire for me?” Think of a little child, barely able to speak, resting in the arms of their mother. Looking up into the eyes of the mother, they know they are loved. The tender, embracing arms, the gentle eyes tell them this much immediately, without a need for them to reason about it. And the mother already receives all she needs: the child is the perfect gift. There is no need for the child to do anything more, but simply to receive the love that the mother yearns to give.
To ask “What does God require in order for me truly to receive his love?” is like the child looking up into the mother’s eyes and asking, “What do I need to do in order for you to love me?”
We are already enfolded in the tender arms of our loving Father, and he is ever gazing upon us in love. Let us only realize that we are his beloved child, little and dependent, and therefore completely sheltered and completely free. Let us drink, simply, at every moment, of the Love that he is ever pouring out upon us. In this way the desert of our life will bloom in radiant beauty, the beauty of the intimacy for which he has created us and for which our hearts so deeply long.