Embracing Uncertainty

People often say to me, ‘Your faith must help your cancer.’ To which, if they will listen, I generally reply, ‘No, cancer helps my faith.’ What I mean by that is that my experience of cancer has impressed on me the fact that we are not in control, and control isn’t the most important thing in life anyway.

Today the whole world is being asked to embrace an uncertainty such as we have not experienced in a long time. Those who say, ‘ Our faith will get us through,’ are undoubtedly sincere but do not always recognize that faith isn’t something any of us can summon up at will, nor is it much use as a crutch. Our belief should encourage us to hope and prompt us to show love to others, but most of us know dark times when our belief falters, our hope evaporates and love is just a word. That is human and natural and not something we should scold ourselves for — still less, anyone else.

As always, I think we need to turn to the gospels and see how Jesus coped with the temptation to despair or rebel against the Father (if you don’t think he was ever tempted, I suggest re-reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent or the accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane). He truly struggled. Many people are struggling now. Here in the monastery, where we are familiar with lockdown (only we call it ‘enclosure’) and practise a form of social distancing (only we call it ‘solitude’), we know that the single most important thing we can do for anyone is to pray, and pray we do. In prayer we embrace the uncertainty of life, for prayer is God’s gift. It all depends on him, but because it all depends on him, we need to stay alert and be co-operative.

That applies to every situation, including the one in which we find ourselves now where the rapid acceleration of COVID-19 is causing great distress and anxiety. In the U.K. this morning the message is clear: stay at home. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, just stay at home. That need not be a negative experience, but for many it will be very hard, requiring a renunciation of self few have been required to make before. I am reminded of Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, encouraging a younger monk with the words, ‘Stay in your cell and it will teach you all things.’ Perhaps that sentence is one to ponder as we enter lockdown, and to remember it was love that prompted the monk’s withdrawal into the desert in the first place. We cannot know what the future holds, but faith, hope and love come together in an uncertainty that is, paradoxically, very sure. Let us embrace it as best we can.

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I wonder how many homilies on the temptations of Jesus will concentrate on the theological aspects to the exclusion of the psychological? I ask because I think one of the reasons many find it difficult to relate to the person of Christ is that, practically speaking, we  have an either/or approach, making him wholly human or wholly divine, but not both. The result is an impoverishment of our reading of the gospels. That is especially true of the temptation narrative we read today, where the reality of the choice facing Jesus is often played down, as though he were merely play-acting. The idea of Jesus being genuinely attracted by evil is deeply shocking. It brings home to us with startling clarity the importance of the choices we ourselves make as well as the salvation opened to us by his decisive rejection of all that is contrary to God.

Jesus did not succumb to temptation; we often do; but as the Letter to the Hebrews points out, we now have as intercessor a High Priest who has experienced everything we have — but without sinning. That is a great encouragement to us all. It reminds us that evil can be overcome. We are not the weak and feeble beings we often think we are, and we give thanks that we have ‘such and so mighty a Redeemer.’Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail