By: Marek Zabriskie
When I last toured the Holy Land some 15 years ago, I had a very unusual experience in the exact place where Jesus experienced his temptations, which is the Bible story that the season of Lent is based upon.
Scripture tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and nights fasting and praying. While in the wilderness, the devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time, Jesus successfully countered the devil by quoting Scripture, using it like a sword to battle temptation. When the devil finally left him, the angels came and ministered to Jesus.
The place where Jesus encountered the devil is called the Mount of Temptations. It is located outside the ancient city of Jericho, which is said to be the lowest city on earth.
On one side, the ancient city looks out at a mountain, where a cable car climbs to the peak bringing tourists to visit an ancient looking Orthodox monastery, which was actually constructed in the 1895. The first monastery located here was built in the sixth century around the stone where Jesus said to have sat while he fasted for 40 days.
Our group rode the cable car, then walked a long series of steps to the monastery, where several scowling monks made it clear that they would have preferred that we had not come to visit. Fortunately, one friendly monk offered to take us on a tour of the monastery built into the cliffside. It was an epic site.
As our group stood in the small monastic kitchen during the tour, I looked down the hallway and spied a door. I was tempted to know what lay on the other side of it. Succumbing to temptation, I walked down the hallway, opened the door, and stepped into a paddock, where several half-built caskets lay in various stages of construction sitting atop saw horses.
Most monasteries strive to be self-sufficient. Evidently, this monastery produced hand-crafted caskets to generate money to support the monastery. Seeing several coffins seemed somewhat spooky and immediately reminded me of my mortality.
On the far side of the paddock lay another door. I was tempted to see what was on the other side of it. Succumbing to temptation a second time, I crossed the paddock, opened the door, and suddenly found myself standing on the windswept cliff outside the monastery.
I stretched out my arms in the form of a cross as a cool wind whistled through my arms and around my body. The late afternoon sun bore down on my face. It felt glorious. For a moment, I felt as though I had actually entered the Bible itself as I was standing perhaps exactly where Jesus had stood some 2,000 years ago when he was tempted by the devil.
There were no tourists in sight. I scanned the Jordan Valley, filled with a veritable sea of date palm trees and saw the ancient city of Jericho in the distance. Then turning my head to the right, I spied a cave further along the ridge.
For a third time, I was tempted to investigate. Reader take note: I have always been insatiably curious. So, I walked along the ridge until I reached the cave, whose lower half was sealed off with boulders. Getting closer, I peered inside the cave and saw dozens of skulls and bones of monks who had died and whose skeletons had been laid to rest.
It was scary, and I immediately thought of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Skulls. Skeletons. Lord, lead me not into temptation. Clearly, it was time to return to the monastery. God, forgive me for trespassing, abandoning my pilgrims and three times succumbing to temptation. I quickly rejoined my group and our monastic tour guide and told no one of my adventure.
Lent is as 40-day season where Christians engage in spiritual warfare. We focus on confronting temptation. We confront our own sinfulness. Like Adam and Eve, we have all discovered forbidden fruit which dazzles the eye, and we have all succumbed to temptation.
St. Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We can resonate with his words, for we have all been complicit in a world where sin, domination and exploitation are woven into the fabric of society. Evil often comes disguised as something good.
Each one of us will eventually peer into the cave of death, filled with skulls and skeletons. We must all confront our own mortality. Lent is a penitential season where Christians traditionally give up something that tempts us. We do this as a spiritual discipline to strengthen our will, remind us of our sinfulness and to seek solidarity with Christ who gave up everything for us.
This year, I have given up drinking alcohol for Lent. I often tell people that if they cannot give up alcohol for 40 days, perhaps it is best to give it up forever. I miss the occasional beer or scotch at the end of the day, but it’s hardly a great sacrifice to make. It reminds me that it is Lent – a different spiritual time of the year.
Our Lenten practices cleanse our soul, and they prepare us to embrace the miracle of Easter. Facing down temptation is the first step on the spiritual journey. Next comes illumination, where we increase our knowledge of God. Finally, there is union, where we seek to unite our will with God’s will in a union of divine love. That is the ultimate transformation and the work of a lifetime.