Monday, February 19, 2018

a little bit of wilderness time...

Last week I learned again (or maybe it was for the first time) that the Hebrew title for the fourth book of Torah, what I know as Numbers, is בְּמִדְבַּר‬ or Bəmiḏbar: in the wilderness. The word wilderness speaks to me at a deep level not only because in Christianity it is now Lent, the liturgical season grounded in Christ's season of fasting and prayer in the desert; but, because wilderness is what the early days of retirement feels like. Being alone in the world without obligations, guideposts or expectations. Discerning new ways of walking within the world beyond the confines of habit. 

For most of my adult life I have sensed Lent to be a time of wandering into reality without a clear sense of destination. Real desert time, of course, is harsh. The land is barren. The food is limited. And the extremes of hot and cold can be life threatening. A spirituality of the desert is a kinder and gentler wilderness. Still it invites us to strip away our certainties, spend time in the silence and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. It is also, I was reminded by a friend, the time when the Tempter takes on Jesus. "Follow and serve me," Satan coos, "and all of this shall be yours." Without clear lines of authority - beyond the contours of an established community - our shadows take on greater significance that can easily feed our inclination towards evil.The wilderness is, therefore, always a place of freedom alongside illusion. 

Clearly the early desert fathers and mothers recognized this tension: Fr. Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, regularly wrestled with demons in his quest to live as a man of peace. A story of Abba Poemen puts it like this: 

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’

This is a little of what I have discerned entering Lent without a traditional spiritual home. As much as I cherish wandering, I need grounding, too. Henri Nouwen was clear in his Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

From the heart arise unknowable impulses as well as conscious feelings, moods, and wishes. The heart, too, has its reasons and is the center of perception and understanding. Finally, the heart is the seat of the will: it makes plans and comes to good decisions. Thus the heart is the central and unifying organ of our personal life. Our heart determines our personality, and is therefore not only the place where God dwells but also the place to which Satan directs his fiercest attacks. It is this heart that is the place of prayer. The prayer of the heart is a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of the person and thus affects the whole of our humanness.

It will be good for my soul to reconnect tomorrow with L'Arche. 

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