I spent yesterday at a retreat for women at Magdala, a site just up the road from Tiberias thought to be the ancient village where Mary Madalene lived. Like many places in this land, it’s both an archeological park (they’ve unearthed a first century synagogue) and a contemporary place of worship which houses an atrium devoted to the women who followed — and follow — Jesus.
For my head, it’s a place of tension. Though they recognise Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles and celebrate women’s lay ministry, it’s Catholic, so they don’t recognise women’s ordained ministry.
For my heart, however, it’s a different story. From the first time I visited, I found nourishment for my spirit in a way that few of the other other holy sites in this land have provided.
Both Catholic and charismatic, its worship is just enough outside my own tradition and comfort zone to be challenging, while at the same time, it links just enough with a liturgy and style of prayer with which I am familiar to be refreshing and restorative. And I feel nurtured by the women who work and pray there.
In the quiet moments during the sessions, I wandered the grounds, walking along the path by the sea, looking up towards Arbel, marvelling at the lush greens and the bright yellow mustard flowers that shine in the sun on the hillsides.
I thought about Lent, about how it’s sometimes referred to as a springtime of the soul, about how we’re so often encouraged to spring-clean in preparation for Holy Week and Easter, about its penitential focus and acts of self-mortification. I thought about the messiness in my life, in my heart, and how impossible a task it feels to try to tidy it away in just 40 days.
And I looked again at the mustard flowers. I noticed how after the rain, wherever there was the thinest layer of dust, they would grow. They grow amongst piles of rubbish in the fields. They grow in cracks in the road. They’re even growing on the roof of my outbuildings in the garden.
Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed came to mind: He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Matthew 13.31-32)
Mustard is not the greatest of shrubs. To call it a tree would be hyperbolic. Birds dart and dance among it but I could see no evidence of nests. But looking around, I witnessed the persistence of the kingdom of heaven, its determination to flower wherever its seeds fall, its perseverance in taking over the land.
My Lenten practice this year is to turn off all screens and electric lights by 8.30 each night. And in the quiet candlelight last night, I sat and read one of Wendell Berry’s poems, ‘A Purification’ from his collection The Gift of Gravity:
At the start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless fragments,
errors. And I put into the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal,
the old escapes into the new.
I have learned living in a desert land that cleaning the house is an endless task. As soon as one surface is free from dust, the evening wind blows and a fine layer covers it again. In Lent the work of cleaning my heart and my soul feels the same. It is easy here to remember that you are dust.
And I wondered, as I read Berry’s poem, if, instead of sweeping all the mess and dust of our lives away, instead of trying to get rid of it, we gather it. And over the coming days, we offer it to the One who brings the rains which make the desert blossom and which make the once barren hillsides shimmer with life. Let us offer it with the hope and the prayer that that One will shower rain on our dusty lives. Remember that you are dust …. and from dust, the kingdom blooms.