On the map the amount of white space is remarkable, so close to the Los Angeles Basin. Highway 5 runs south from Bakersfield, out of the fertile Central Valley where there are numerous towns with their red dots and names crowding each other and confusing the reader. Just over the Tejon Pass, still ahead, there was, of course, a foreboding chaos of metropolis. I had just been thinking that this relatively blank area we were coming to was that way because the soil must be too poor to make irrigation worthwhile. Evidently there isn’t water for residential development, either.
Then I glanced up from my map study, and saw not white space, or even the brown tumbleweeds I expected it to represent in reality, but the most brilliant purple and orange swaths of color spreading out and away for miles of flatland, on both sides of the freeway, wildflowers that take advantage of the lack of roads and suburbs, make the most of the small amount of winter rainfall, and turn the brown expanse into a stunning display of God’s lavish strokes. B. said it looked like a computer-generated photo, because the colors were too bright to be real, and you could not get the third dimension; from the distance and elevation from which we were speeding along, the flowers looked all the same height. And there was nowhere to stop and take my own photo! I’ve looked online for pictures and they are all taken in the hills closer to the pass, but this one shows the species of flowers we were probably seeing, California poppies and a kind of lupine.
I’ve been through this area before and seen the spring-green hills covered with flowers of many kinds. You can see photos at http://www.caopenspace.org/tejon.html or http://www.tejon.com/ . In our family, we love maps. But they can only show you so much!
In March we made a car trip that took us as far as Arizona and Utah. Many of the following entries were conceived during that time, rich as it was with opportunities to think and respond to the varied stimuli. Unfortunately I don’t have the means to communicate while on the road, so the written creations are coming belatedly.
The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother;
For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
A freezing morning– but after lying awake for three hours and praying for part of the time, I thought I heard Him call me to Matins, so I scraped the frost off the car windows and drove down the road. Those special Lenten morning prayers were the foundation of my athletic effort today, my Wheaties. What—did I say athletic effort? It has been said that Lent and its ascetic labor is spiritual athleticism. When I meditated on that idea for a while I found some peace and patience for the journey. For if the Church generally, and Lent, provide these exercises for the soul, I might think of the whole program as a large gym with every kind of equipment to help me in my workouts. Some days I might use the treadmill and the upper-body Nautilus machines. Other days I might attend a Yoga class, or swim in the pool. Some days I might stay home and sleep.
I’m an amateur. Not only that, but I have severe handicaps. But the Master Teacher doesn’t let me get away with anything. I might have trainers who can show me what a helpful course would look like, but when it comes down to running an extra five minutes today, or in the Lenten case praying an extra five minutes, or eating five fewer bites—then only He knows if that was a big advance for me, or if I am still being too easy on myself. He can reveal to me how lazy and gluttonous I am, how I cater to my weaknesses and make provision for them. That’s why it doesn’t help at all to compare my progress with anyone else’s. The Lord knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. But He is our biggest encourager, He is the Prize itself, Whom we want to know more intimately. So we press on.
I’ve learned very well how lazy I am at the local (earthly body) health club. But I also know that just getting on the treadmill and walking slowly, on those Slow Days, is better than languishing at home. Every little step forward is at least in the right direction, aiming for the healing of my soul—and here I have introduced the overarching metaphor, of the Orthodox Church as a spiritual hospital. It has all the best treatments and medicines one needs, including this 40-day “Fitness Challenge” to prepare us for the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. With patience let us run the race that is before us—even if, like me, you will be the tortoise bringing up the rear–by God’s mercy and grace.