Sunday, March 19, 2006

Desert Spirituality for Lutherans

In the late third and early fourth centuries Christians began flocking to the Egyptian desert in search of spiritual fulfillment. The lives of people such as St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony, St. Macarius and St. Pachomius very quickly became legendary, and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is still one of the great treasures of the Church. These desert pilgrims, spiritual athletes they are sometimes called, laid the foundation for the monastic movement within Christianity.

The story of St. Augustine's "conversion" is often told, how he was in his garden and heard the voices of children singing, "Tolle lege, tolle lege!" It is even sometimes noted that what he took up and read was Romans 13:13-14, "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." What is less often recited outside of Augustine's Confessions is that the reason he was in the garden to begin with was that a friend had just told him the story of St. Anthony and he was anguished over his own inability to overcome the sins of the flesh.

Extreme asceticism is certainly one of the images that comes to mind when we think of the desert monastics. On the surface it would seem that this is exactly the kind of "monkery" that drove Martin Luther to the point of despair as he tried to make himself worthy of heaven.

Even so, though I am an enthusiastic Lutheran, I like to see what other branches of the faith have discovered, so last year I read a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers. I was delighted to find it not full of misanthropic otherworldliness but rather full of genuine humility, warmth and compassion. For instance, one of my favorite sayings was this:
A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, "I too am a sinful man."
And so I took a liking to the desert tradition. Then this year as I was seeking a good devotional for the Lenten season, I came across The Desert: An Anthology for Lent.

In a previous post I described my Ash Wednesday revelation. Preparing to spend Lent with a devotional on the desert, I wanted to "find my desert" and I realized that the desert is me. This Lent, I believed, would be about standing before God as I am.

The late Gerhard O. Forde once wrote that sanctification is the art of getting used to unconditional justification. This may sound like a cop out that denies any reality to sanctification -- that is, until you actually try it. I think the great Christian tradition of desert spirituality offers a key to understanding the way in which one is sanctified by getting used to unconditional justification.

In what follows I am keanly aware of being a novice, but I can also see the brightness and potential of what I've stumbled upon. Kindly consider this a pilgrim's report from the road. The quotations are from the aforementioned anthology.
When you retreat into yourself, you should stand before the Lord, and remain in His presence, not letting the eyes of the mind turn away from the Lord. This is the true wilderness--to stand face to face with the Lord.
-Theophan the Recluse
In the life of Christian spirituality, the first thing we must learn to do is to allow ourselves to come before God. Perhaps this is the only thing we need to learn to do. But it is something we must admit to being very ambivalent about.

What I learned on Ash Wednesday is that I want to come before God properly adorned. I want some bling, something to show I belong in the presence of God. Failing that, I'd probably settle for a suitable covering, a garment of skin, or fig leaves if necessary.

But the point of entry of the desert is giving up everything you have. For the spiritual athletes of third century Egypt, that meant physical belongings -- but also much more. For each of us, it must mean at least our spiritual pretensions. To come before God in the way of the desert, we must come as we are -- as we really are, not as we wish we were.
There is a physical desert, inhabited by a few exceptional men and women who are called to live there; but more importantly, there is an inner desert, into which each one of us must one day venture. It is a void; an empty space for solitude and testing.
-Frere Ivan
Yes, testing. Are we getting into monkery here? Have we strayed from our firm Lutheran castle? No. What's being tested is how we will react to what we find when left to ourselves. When we see ourselves, will we turn toward ourselves? Will we despair? Or dare we still turn toward God?

The Sacred Space daily prayer often offers a quotation from St. Ignatius of Loyola recalling, "In those days God taught me as a teacher teaches a pupil." That hasn't been my experience this Lent. Rather I would say, "In these days, God has taught me as a parent teaches a child sent to time out."

Generally speaking, I tend to feel close to God. I have a sense of God's presence. But this Lent, as I've been "led into the desert" so to speak, I've felt that distinctly less. What I thought was going to be an experience of standing before God has become more a lesson of standing alone. But I think I understand.
Not everyone is called to face the particular trials of St. Anthony but each one of us has, sooner or later, to confront the terrible demons which we carry inside: the demons of aggression, resentment, pride, sadness, despair.
-Frere Ivan
This is my experience. As I've tried to turn away from the form and beauty available in verbal prayer in order to focus intently on sittingly quietly waiting on God, I've instead found that my own mind generated more noise as if to fill the void.

One course of action would be to seek some method to repress the noise, but this is just another spiritual pretension. So I've tried to wait for God in the midst of the noise. Recognizing that the noise, and the temptation to which it calls me, is me. This is part and parcel of standing before God as myself. This is a way of getting used to unconditional justification.

Having read the account of spiritual pilgrims who have gone before me, I am confident to say that most, if not all, who know the noise I'm referring to know that it's not an indifferent noise. It's ugliness. It's the lower parts of myself coming to the fore. And it hurts to have that exposed as I'm trying to stand before God.

But where else would it be? Where would I hide it that God would not see? The shame isn't caused by God seeing it. It's caused by me seeing it while I'm thinking of God. And, ultimately, this is goodness.

Therefore, I end with one last wonderful quote which I think captures, much better than I otherwise could, the essence of what I've learned so far about desert spirituality for Lutherans.
Before we can surrender ourselves, we must become ourselves. No one can give up what they do not possess.
-Thomas Merton
Come to the desert.


Mata H said...

I spent several weeks last summer in the very real high desert of Arizona, near the Chiricauhua Mountains. And, during that time went with a friend into some true desert wilderness areas by 4x4 once about 100 miles from any sort of "civilization". I had thought it would feel spare, desolate, frightening. In fact the opposite was true. It felt open, teeming with life, exciting, humbling, prayerful. There were moments when I 'got' what it meant that we werre part of the creation. In the desert and wilderness, one has to be alert, attentive. There are some dangers that do not exist in a town -- things like wild animals, water shortages, no gas stations, etc. What this calm, yet hyper-observant state does is immediately slam me into the present. There is no past, no future. There is just the naked Now. Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek says that she would like to take a paramecium (that cannot filter experience) out of a fish tank and show it the fullness of beauty in the night sky. That is how I felt in the wilderness, like that single celled organism suddenly exposed to wonder. The desert is not desolate, not empty -- it is a place for deep spiritual magic to happen. It is no wonder that Jesus, Mohammed, Moses all spent time there. It is a crucible. Things happen there that happen nowhere else. The task and deepest thirst of my spiritual life since has been to find the desert within.

Andy said...

Spoken like a modern desert mother, mata.

I guess the big thing my "desert spirituality" experience is missing is an actual desert. But it's such a long drive to eastern Oregon.

Gloria said...

Lovely . . . and helpful. Thank you.