Friday, June 15, 2007

The Need for Desert Sojourn

Here's a portion of what I preached this past Sunday (Season after Pentecost 5C):

In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane traces out the role of the retreat to the desert in early Christianity. “A fierce landscape,” he claims, “was assumed to be the proper abode of people committed to an austere vocation.” Desert asceticism, for the church fathers, was held up not as an exception, but as an ideal for those early Christians. The choice of landscape was deliberate. “While it may appear recklessly wild, even dangerous, to outsiders, for this very reason it fed the spirits of those who had chosen the desert way,” (161). The sites these ascetics chose, like the one pictured in today’s Old Testament lesson, offered both prospect and refuge—“an unimpeded opportunity to see, as well as ample opportunity to hide,” (163). One literally learned to live, Lane suggests, within a context of fear tempered by grace,” (164). In the desert, one could discover death and rebirth, renunciation and abandonment, and especially the ability to renounce one’s own fears in order to discover a sense of vocation. This is essentially what the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is all about—a kind of purgation and renunciation which prepares him to become the one who will redeem his people.

This way of thinking has largely been lost to those of us who are both American and Christian. In an age of “white noise,” we are literally terrified of silence, the dark, and the austerity of being cut off from our technology and creature comforts. This summer we will probably have to, in spite of the cost of gasoline, continue dodging the huge RV’s which blanket our highways in an attempt to take all that we own into the wilderness. Thanks to satellite, we won’t have to leave our televisions or computers behind as we enter the desert. And, with the wonder of electricity pumped from a generator, we needn’t even suffer from fear of the dark. In short, we have attempted to tame the desert to rid it of its austerity and challenge to the self.

But, in so doing, perhaps we have missed the very point of this sacred geography. Without the brokenness that the harsh desert winds create, without the heat of the sun which strips away from us every vestige of self-reliance, we are never brought face-to-face with our need of God. Those who observe the greatest hospitality amongst the poorest of people often write about how with possessions comes an underlying belief in our own power and the sense of God being an unnecessary add-on to our lives. Though we may long to find a sense of meaning and vocation, we find ourselves caught up in a solipsistic circle of self and things with no room for anything or anyone else. Consumed with ourselves and our needs, we wouldn’t dream of leaving behind the detritus which first litters and then consumes our souls.

That is why we need ordinary time: it serves to remind us that not everything in life has to be spectacular and extraordinary. It forces us to learn to pay close attention to what is going on all around us. Maybe it results in an editorial, like that of Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times this past week, entitled, “Sudden Growth.” Here, he ruminates on the white spruces he planted just seven years ago, mere whisps of vegetation, which now exceed ten feet in height. Or maybe it is to notice as we are this summer the absence of a pianist or the familiarity of John leading us in worship.

For those of us who gather regularly for Morning Prayer, it may be the recognition that youth has largely fled and it is primarily the middle-aged and elderly who occupy the pews on these warm summer days. The liturgy drones on day after day in constant repetition—to the outsider, something dry and boring. But, giving ourselves over to it, it serves to focus our minds like a laser beam, distractions escaping out the window. “The ceaseless regularity of the liturgy,” one author suggests, “works on those distractions with a stubborn indifference, so that the mind is silenced and the heart made able to love,” (Fierce Landscapes, 227). Perhaps it is true that the desert can even invade our churchly habitation.

For recent graduates, it may be the recognition that there will be no more homework to get ready for this fall. The degree, hard-earned and now neatly framed, sits astride our bedroom wall reminding us that that part of our life is now behind us and the larger world awaits us. After sixteen years or so have the regular cycle of being a student, we will have to learn how to learn to sing our song in a new and strange land. We will soon be arriving for work ourselves, learning to become adults in a world in which we still think of ourselves as perpetual adolescents.

Whatever the circumstances, this season cries out for us to recognize the need for desert sojourns as a means of preparation for that which lies yet ahead. The leisurely day at poolside or the incessant hum of the lawnmower engine may really be opportunities in disguise for us to learn to listen to God and to rely upon Him for the sustenance, grace, and strength for the journey which stretches out before us. “The desert,” Lane suggests, “has to lead us, at last, from aloneness with God (in a moment of great and silent emptiness) to community with others, from the loss of the fragile self to the discovery of a new identity binding us to the world. . . Desert attentiveness and desert indifference lead necessarily to desert love,” (232). Let us then learn to prick up our ears and listen for the voice of God, to receive the morsels he has for us in this season of respite, and, with Elijah, Paul, and Jesus, to prepare for the new sense of calling and vocation which await us on the other side of the desert.