Lent has begun and here in this old house, we are focusing in our daily readings on the battle between the good that we want to do and don’t, and the bad we don’t want to do and do. Even the weather is in a tug-of-war between winter one day, spring the next, and back to snow the following day.
On the first Sunday in Lent, the Church begins with the Gospel reading focusing on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Living here in Colorado, wilderness is a lovely thing. We fight to protect our wilderness areas that are often breathtakingly beautiful: mountains, streams, forests. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago when I first saw the Judean wilderness in Israel that I understood the Biblical concept of wilderness. The Judean wilderness is stark, barren, monochromatic (except for a short time after the spring rains), desolate, deadly. The Dead Sea is in the heart of it and symbolizes the lifeless feeling of the area. The thought of spending forty days and nights in that place by myself with no provision or protection gave me a whole new appreciation for Jesus’ strength that came through his fasting as well as his ability to say no to rocks-turned-into-bread. I wonder if Satan made those rocks smell like a local bakery, heightening the hunger pangs Jesus was experiencing by then.
It took me a long time to not be afraid of the wilderness near my house, one that interfaces pretty closely with the urban environment but still has elements of wildness about it. I was raised to be afraid of the woods. My grandparents had a farm in Illinois and a small child lost in those immense cornfields is a dangerous situation. Children have died of dehydration before being found in the immensity of those tall, close together stocks. Unfortunately, I was kept from dashing into them to explore by frightening me with the idea of snakes in there (which there were but I don’t think I had ever even seen at that young age). This is a fear I have not fully overcome in my adult life. It used to be I couldn’t even see a picture of a snake in a book without a violent, visceral response but I am better now.
One of two times in 30 years that I have called my husband at work and demanded he come home immediately was when what I thought there was a small rattlesnake wedged between the screen and hardware cloth in our lower front door. By the time he drove the two miles home, I was starting to pack to move out. Because this old house has no foundation, I was sure there was a nest of rattlesnakes down in our dirt-walled crawl space.
It turned out to be a bull snake.
I learned to appreciate bull snakes, even as I didn’t want to see them or have them close to the house, because if you have bull snakes, you will not have rattlesnakes. Bull snakes kill rattlers. Rattlers don’t have to be as fast as they are poisonous and so a faster bull snake can kill a rattlesnake. I have never seen it happen, nor do I care to, but I would always rescue the bull snakes from the cats. I would spray the cat in the face with water so it would drop the snake, letting it escape to freedom, if a bit worse for the wear.
With that history, learning to walk in the woods everyday behind my house for exercise was an act of sheer will. I made myself go farther and farther until I had a 3 1/4 mile exercise loop. There are still days when I am up there with few to no other hikers around that I feel a bit spooked, more now by an awareness of mountain lions. I sing or call “here, kitty, kitty” just to let them and any bears, especially mothers with cubs, know that I am in the area. And it seems like once a year, I come across a huge bull snake in the path. They still freak me out. I must be quite a sight hopping up and down and yelling at the snake to move, which it never seems to be in a hurry to do.
But compared to what Jesus must have encountered in that wilderness in Judea, a five-foot bull snake seems pretty minor.