Sunday, February 21, 2021



The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert where he remained for forty days. 

Mark 1:12 


On Ash Wednesday, we traditionally open the holy season of Lent by receiving ashes as a sacred, outward sign of our willingness to get serious about conversion of life. This year we were asked to tweak the practice for safety reasons. It is a very old and public sign that even some of our Protestant friends are choosing to use these days. It is meant to be seen by others. 


The rector of the seminary at St. Meinrad, where I used to work as a staff member, is a former Baptist who loves the signs and symbols of the Catholic Church. He is more than a little dramatic by nature, so he tends to get carried away sometimes. Those who lined up to receive ashes from a priest, who was a life-long Catholic like me, got a modest cross in the center of their foreheads. Those who got in his line, got a cross that went from their hairlines-to-the-top-of-our-noses and from ear-to-ear! They looked like they had been hit by a coal truck! They were the talk of the lunch line afterwards!    


Over the next five weeks, during the Sunday readings of Lent, we will go with Jesus to a desert, to a mountain, to a well, to a doctor and to a grave to get the insights we need to be created anew. 


On this first Sunday of Lent, to be created anew, Jesus invites us to go to a desert with him, to an empty place where there is nothing to distract us, a symbolic place of laser-focused attention. 


If we are to be serious about conversion of life, we must first be willing to withdraw from the noise and pace of ordinary life, at least once in a while, in order to hear ourselves think and to receive direction from the Holy Spirit. As the ancient Chinese proverb puts it, “Outside noisy, inside empty!” 


Most of us cannot afford to take a traditional forty day “retreat” even back when there was no COVID-19. We don’t have the luxury of heading off to some monastery or even to a secluded cabin in the woods. We have to “make do” with an hour here, an afternoon there or, if we are really lucky, a whole day.   A few of you are so busy that fitting in a few hours of quiet time might sound impossible, so in preparing this week’s homily, I read a few articles about multitasking. What they seemed to agree on is this: we all have an ever-present pressure of trying to cram more and more into each moment. We are inundated with faster and faster gadgets to do more and more in a shorter amount of time. Ironically, my research said that the more we use such gadgets and the more we try to handle at one time, the more inefficient our brains become. 


I learned my lesson a few years back. In a fifteen-minute span, I got a face-time call from the Bishop of Barbados, while I was writing an e-mail to a priest in Ontario, Canada, about a retreat I would be leading and waiting to Skype a fellow island volunteer who was home visiting in Ireland. As a result, I realized that I had booked a wedding on a day that I would still be in Canada for yet another priest retreat.  It took me hours to unwind that embarrassing mistake.


Multitasking is an illusion. There is evidence that our brains cannot concentrate on more than one complex task at a time. The more information our brains are forced to handle simultaneously, the more they slow down. Tasks take longer. Mistakes multiply. Real efficiency is found in mono-tasking, not multitasking. For this very reason, more states have prohibited talking on cell phones and texting while driving. 


What is even scarier is the theory that bombarding our brains with bursts of information is undermining our ability to focus. These bursts of information play into a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. This stimulation provokes excitement – a dopamine squirt – that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. I know at least two younger priests whom I consider to be addicted to technology gadgets. 


I noticed an advertisement on TV some time ago that captures the spirit of “going to the desert.”  I am sure some of you have seen it. Chevy Trucks has a commercial with “the guys” going deeper and deeper into the woods until they finally get a “no signal’ on their cell phone! With that, they let out a yelp of delight! Maybe one of the best things people can do during this season, and probably a very hard thing to do, is to go somewhere for an hour or two where your electronic gadgets are turned off or somewhere where you can get “no signal” and just “be!” 


That will be harder than you think! For some people, one hour without being technologically connected will be as hard as trying to go without oxygen! That’s the point of all the disciplines of Lent – to find out who and what is in control of our lives. Is it over-eating, over-drinking, over-drugging, over-scheduling or even over-texting and over-posting? When we “give it up for Lent,” whatever it is, we find out how much power it has over us and how little power we have over it! The whole point of “giving things up things for Lent” is not to punish ourselves, but to test ourselves, to find out if we are really in control of our own selves. The idea is to enlighten ourselves about ourselves, not simply to punish ourselves. God is more interested in us knowing ourselves, than in us punishing ourselves!  Lent, really, is not so much about doing more, but about doing less. Doing less, for many of us, is actually harder than doing more.   


Friends, it’s time to go to the desert, to re-learn how to be fully present to ourselves, to each other and to God! Are you brave enough to face your relationship with yourself, your relationships with others and your relationship with God? If you are, let’s really “do Lent” the way it is meant to be done - seriously, with thought and with spiritual maturity!  Forget all that childish stuff like giving up candy bars. God is not impressed! It’s a waste of time!  Do something serious!  Do something worthwhile or it is probably better to do nothing at all! 


After being invited this weekend to “go to the desert with Jesus” for a new insight, next week we will be invited to “go to the mountain with Peter, James and John” for a new perspective! Then we will go, to the well with the Samaritan woman, to the doctor with the man born blind and finally to the grave with Martha and Mary to be instructed by Jesus. This Lent, we are all invited to take this "transformation trip" with Jesus as we prepare for a glorious Easter!







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