Allured into the Desert: The Lenten Journey

The celebration and observance of lent goes back to ancient times. The word Lent itself comes from the old English lencten meaning “spring time” which comes from the Old German langitinaz which means “lengthening of days”.

So, when we speak of fasting for Lent, we are really referring to our spring time fast, when the days are getting longer. In this season we face some of the most difficult times – it has been quite a while since the fall harvest, everyone has cabin fever from being cooped up inside, the blanket of snow which at first was beautiful has started to feel like a lifeless desert testing us at every turn.

At least that’s how it feels here in Canada. So, Lent coincides with the changing of the seasons, as we struggle through this difficult time at the end of winter in eager anticipation of spring, of the rebirth of the natural world, of the resurrection of warmth and life and joy.

We have historical records dating back as far as 203 AD indicating the debate among Christian communities as to how Lent was to be observed and how long one was to fast for. By the end of the fourth century it is clear that a forty day period of fasting was common practice among Christians in the weeks leading up to Easter.

The period of time in which we celebrate Lent in the Western tradition is actually forty six days, not forty. The reason for this is that it was considered inappropriate to fast on Sundays, as that was the day we remembered Jesus’ resurrection. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition people fast straight through even on Sundays. But we will be focusing on the Western tradition for now.

Fasting for forty days is a biblically significant number, as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all fasted for this number of days. During lent we especially mirror Jesus’ forty days of fasting. As Sunday was reserved for celebration Friday was reserved for solemn mourning. People would fast more rigorously on Fridays to symbolically suffer with Christ on the day of his crucifixion. Hence the meatless Fridays we are all familiar with. For me personally, this means I give up dessert, coffee, snacks between meals, and alcohol Monday to Saturday and only have water on Fridays. Then I get to feast and celebrate on Sundays.

It was also traditional not only to give up things for Lent but to take up more rigorous spiritual and charitable practices. One was expected to do extra works of charity during the season and to focus more time on prayer and sacraments. Easter traditionally being the time when people were baptized it was common practice to renew baptismal vows and devote extra time to repentance. Just as John repented in the desert before Jesus, so do we seek God and the correction of our inner lives in the wilderness.

I don’t imagine any of us will go out and find an actual desert, but we can find God’s stillness wherever we are. I would like to share with you today a poem which means a great deal to me. It may have been the first time that Christian language spoke to me in a deep and profound way. I will admit I actually broke into tears when I first read it. The poem is called Allured Into the Desert and it was written by Gerhard Tersteegen, a German poet and hymn writer from the 18th century. We don’t actually know who translated it into English, but they did an excellent job. It goes like this:

Allured into the desert,
With God alone, apart,
There spirit meeteth spirit,
There speaketh heart to heart.
Far, far on that untrodden shore,
God’s secret place I find;
Alone I pass the golden door,
The dearest left behind.
There God and I—none other;
Oh far from men to be!
Nay, midst the crowd and tumult,
Still, Lord, alone with Thee.
Still folded close upon Thy breast,
In field, and mart, and street,
Untroubled in that perfect rest,
That isolation sweet.

O God, Thou art far other
Than men have dreamed and taught,
Unspoken in all language,
Unpictured in all thought.
Thou God art God—he only learns
What that great Name must be,
Whose raptured heart within him burns,
Because he walks with Thee.
Stilled by that wondrous Presence,
That tenderest embrace,
The years of longing over,
Do we behold Thy Face;
We seek no more than Thou hast given,
We ask no vision fair,
Thy precious Blood has opened Heaven,
And we have found Thee there.

O weary souls, draw near Him;
To you I can but bring
One drop of that great ocean,
One blossom of that spring;
Sealed with His kiss, my lips are dumb,
My soul with awe is still:
Let him that is athirst but come,
And freely drink his fill.

Gerhard is calling out to us to find that still quiet comfort which is communion with God. Not in an actual desert, but in an interior spiritual desert. He asserts, quite rightly too, that we can be alone with God amidst the crowd and tumult and that we can be folded close upon his breast even in field and mart and street. In our daily lives, in the hustle and bustle of public places, and while we are at work we can be alone with God.

He urges us to draw near God ourselves because no words he has can communicate the beauty of God’s presence. Even the words of this master poet can only bring one drop of God’s love, of which there is an entire ocean for us to explore, or in this case, a desert.

I would like to look at the very brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert from Gospel according to Mark, it happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism. This is the entire thing:

At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

The first line Mark uses is that the spirit drove him into the wilderness. Isn’t it interesting how he had to be driven, he didn’t simply volunteer. The spirit required it of him. If he was to fulfill his destiny as the living Christ he must go out into the wilderness and face his temptations.

This is how we are as well, if we hope to find God and fulfill our purpose in this life we must first face our own temptations and, just like Jesus, we must be driven. We do not want to go, and of course this is the case. Who would want to willingly go out into the desert and confront Satan? Who would choose to suffer the pain and difficulty inherent in such an undertaking? And so the spirit drives us to begin the process, we are compelled by God to take the contemplative journey and brave the wilderness of our own minds. We are compelled to look inwardly and face Satan’s presence within.

Now I know the language of evil and sin tends to make sensible modern folks uncomfortable, but my hope is that, with a little intentionality, the concept of sin can be understood in a new light. When we speak of sin, we often mean doing something naughty, or disobeying the rules – but this is a shallow understanding of Sin. Sin, in the way we will be using the word, is not disobedience, at least not in the typical sense.

Sin is misery, it is unhealthy relationships, it is the brokenness in the world. Sin is all the places in ourselves where we are not in line with God. Sin is like a hole in a blanket, while we can speak of it as something which is really there, it is in fact an absence, not a substance. Sin is where we are lacking in God’s grace, sin is all the negative and repetitive thoughts that we have.

Richard Rohr said that 90% of human thought is repetitive and useless. This may seem like a high number to you but I believe that if you find yourself being driven into the desert you will begin to see it for yourselves. When we are alone with our thoughts we quickly go to old resentments, petty squabbles, and unnecessary worrying. We relive the tragedies of the past, we continue old arguments, and we worry about the future – projecting our fear or pride or envy onto imaginary scenarios created by our own minds. This is why when Jesus was driven into the wilderness he first encountered the wild beasts.

The wild beasts in our minds are our repetitive and negative thoughts. The reason most people are not interested in the contemplative journey is that when you first begin you are confronted by wild beasts, the first things that come up are the ugly thoughts, we immediately go to a place of self aggrandizement, or vengefulness, or lust.

You may not know this but the human mind is not capable of living in the present moment, it exists entirely in the past or the future. We are capable of living in the moment, but only when we set aside our rational critical mind and understand life from the perspective of the heart.

Our intellects are constantly making judgments, we are always assessing and evaluating the things we see and hear. As you read this, you are critically assessing everything I say – for better or for worse. We all do it, the intellect’s purpose is to critically assess the past and speculate about the future based on those assessments. That’s all it does.

This is why if we wish to understand God, who exists beyond the limits of time, outside of the past and future, we must develop a second mind. We must have not only ears but ears which hear. We must have not only eyes but eyes that see. We must have not only hearts but hearts that love.

Unfortunately Christianity (and other religions as well) is often more of a belief system than a transformation system. We have used our intellects to critically assess the events of the past, speculate about the future, and come up with a very clever list of beliefs that define who we are in relation to everyone and everything else.

The familiar Nicene Creed, which has been the foundational document for Christian identity, was actually carefully crafted as a rebuttal to the various “heresies” of the time. For instance, the line “we believe in one baptism” is a critique of the donatists who insisted on rebaptism. The line “and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the father” is a rebuttal against the Arian heresy, which believed Jesus was subordinate to God the Father.

Every line in the creed is an expression against another community. Our entire institution is based out of the critical mind. The judging mind which proves itself right by proving others to be wrong. But what the contemplative tradition teaches us is how to allow religion to be a transformational system instead of a belonging system or a belief system.

Instead of looking to religion for definite boundaries and concise doctrines we can instead find in Christianity the Sacrament of the present moment. We can leave behind the past and future to reside fully in the now. If we can learn to move past the wild beasts which we first encounter, then, like Jesus, we will be ministered to by the angels and receive the blessing we came into the desert to find.

O weary souls, draw near Him;
To you I can but bring
One drop of that great ocean,
One blossom of that spring;
Sealed with His kiss, my lips are dumb,
My soul with awe is still:
Let him that is athirst but come,
And freely drink his fill.

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