He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, April 25, 2015

40 Days in the Desert: Meditations on Lent

During the course of Lent this year one of my goals was to perform regular meditations on Lent to enhance the effects of the already powerful practice of self-denial on the spiritual life.  I wanted to learn to live Lent fully rather than just going through the motions of Lent, because I've learned that what I get out of my religious practice is directly related to what I put into it.

I put significant time and effort into it, and the fruitfulness was far beyond what I had gained from any Lent before.  I was inspired by the Temptation of Christ as recounted in the synoptic Gospels and decided that I would follow Jesus by spending 40 days in the desert, which is what Lent is actually intended to do for us as a church during the year; it should be uniting us with Christ in his victorious battle against temptation.

We are called to follow Him into the desert just as we should follow Christ in all things, keeping His commandments because of our love for the one who loved us unto death.  And it is by our love for Christ and our commitment to keeping His commandments out of that love which allows us to battle our temptations in such a way as to overcome them just as He did in the desert.

Part of the journey was to begin by researching the desert as an ecosystem and a habitable environment for humans, beginning to understand what makes the desert valuable as a place to live and thrive in our daily existence.  Another part of the journey was occasional spiritual insight from the Desert Fathers, the early Christian ascetics, hermits, and monastics who lived the Christian life in a fullness we in the post-industrialized West have difficulty even imagining.

As they knew quite well, the liturgical life is intended to help us bridge Heaven and earth, providing a way to integrate our daily existence with the timeless spiritual life.  And so my Lenten journey became a process of bridging the physical and emotional realities of life in the desert with the spiritual realities of the 40 days of Lent, drawing on the Gospels as frequent inspiration.

Below are my meditations for this Lent; each meditation draws on the visceral reality of life in the desert and shows the spiritual lesson that I gained from it.  Not every day has its own meditation, a fact reflective of life in the desert in which the work of daily survival can make it difficult to make time and space for contemplation, but also makes the time and space we do have for contemplation immensely fruitful.

Day 1: In the desert, we learn what is truly necessary for life: food, water, and faithful companionship.

In the spiritual desert of Lent, we also learn what is truly necessary for the spiritual life: the Bread of Life, the one who gives living water, and the one companion who is eternally faithful unto death.

Day 2: In the desert, it is not the billions of grains of sand around you that cause you constant irritation, but rather the few that are tumbling around under your foot in your boot.  How quickly we stop to pour them out if we are wise!

In the same way, when we are in the spiritual desert, it should not be the many evils around us that constantly irritate us, but rather the ones we carry with us.  And how quickly we stop and seek to rid ourselves of our own evils if we are wise.

Day 3: Our impression of the desert is often of a somber emptiness where conditions on the rough ocean of sand are too harsh for life, but in truth deserts are full of life. The harsh sands teach the desert traveler to move with care, always aware of the landscape with its beauty and dangers. The emptiness of the desert teaches the traveler how to live without distractions, embracing each precious moment fully rather than spending it recklessly. The desert wildlife teaches the traveler to observe and respond to the small dangers in life before they become fatal problems. Life in the desert is difficult, and that is how it teaches us to live more fully.

So too in the spiritual desert of Lent we often begin our journey with the impression that Lent is merely a time of somber emptiness, but it is truly a time of growing into a fuller life.  It teaches us to be careful and consistent in our spiritual journey, which leads us to live the spiritual life by truly embracing each moment as an opportunity to grow in love.  It teaches us to live without the distractions of our sinful addictions and seductive comforts that steal away the precious moments we have so that we might love the least of His brothers and sisters.  It teaches us to watch out for the small dangers in our spiritual life, such as forgetting to pray and not reaching out in love to those in need.  In confronting the difficulties of Lent and understanding our own weakness, we can learn to live life more fully as an exercise of love.

Day 4: In the desert we often have the privilege of finding our limits, the difficulty of desert life teaching us humility by showing us our physical and mental limits.

In the spiritual desert of Lent, the difficulty we face in relinquishing our vices and building our virtues teaches us humility by showing us the limits of our wills and our hearts. These limits are not shown to us to discourage us, but rather so that we can expand our limits so as to fill the opportunities for virtue which abound in the spiritual desert.

Day 5: In the desert, it is difficult to forget the reality of death.  We are painfully aware that if we fail to find water, we will die.  If we fail to find food, we will die.  If we do not take care to avoid the venomous serpents, we will die.

So too in the spiritual desert it is difficult to forget the reality of spiritual death.  We should feel keenly our lack of the Living Water, we should desire more ardently the Bread of Heaven, and we should be even more wary of the venomous insinuations of the Evil One.

Day 6: In the desert, we clothe ourselves in multiple layers to allow freedom of movement and to protect us from both the scorching sun and the freezing night air.

So too in the spiritual desert, we clothe ourselves in the multiple layers of almsgiving, fasting, and penance.  These allow us to move more freely in the spiritual life as we relinquish the burdens of worldly comforts and protect us from both the scorching temptations of transient pleasures and the deadly sin of pride in our own self-sufficiency that so freezes our spiritual life.

Day 7: The desert is an excellent place to confront our temptations because it sharpens our focus and limits our distractions, forcing us to focus on our survival. The stark emptiness of the desert prompts us to look inward at our own equally stark spiritual emptiness, our reflection in the ocean of sand showing us that we are in the spiritual desert so that we can sharpen our focus and limit our distractions in the spiritual life, our spiritual survival becoming our priority.

So too in the spiritual desert we are confronted with our own emptiness, our own lack of ultimately fulfilling love.  Under the conditions of life in the spiritual desert, we can gradually turn our full strength toward destroying our vices so that our virtues have room to grow as we cultivate them with love and water them with tearful prayer.  Love is what flowers as the virtues grow strong in us.

Day 8: In the desert, as we wander the seemingly endless waves of dunes we might wonder where the desert came from, and why we are in the desert rather than in the lush garden for which our hearts yearn.

In the same way, when we are in the spiritual desert, we may wonder what caused us to be in the spiritual desert, suffering from the cold, dark nights of the soul and from the harsh, gritty sands of the heat of the soul's noonday sun rather than enjoying the delights of the spiritual garden which is cool, fruitful, and filled with abundant life.

Day 9: In the desert, dust storms arise, obscuring our vision with billions of small particles.  It is dangerous to breathe in the dust, for it can carry illness into our bodies.  In a dust storm, it is best to close the mouth to keep out as much of the dust as possible.  If necessary, we must cough to expel as many of the particles as we can from our bodies.

So too in the spiritual desert, storms arise which obscure our vision of Christ with the many small worries of our daily lives and our future desires.  It is dangerous to keep these within us, for they bring a spiritual sickness with them, the sickness of the fear which draws us into worldly cares and away from entering more fully into the divine life of love.  If our souls become infected with worldly cares, we must expel them by offering our concerns to the Lord to do with as He wills.

Day 10: In the same way that desertification happens to the land when it is recklessly deforested, overcultivated for food, and trampled by herds of animals, so too our lives undergo a process of desertification when we use our bodies recklessly, seek pleasure endlessly, and trample our relationships carelessly. Life becomes empty and dry, and we often try to do more of what we have done in a mad scramble to bring a thunderstorm of pleasure into our lives, but this too contributes to the desertification by washing away much of what little remains of our life.

But take heart, those of you whose lives are a desert! It is the desert that will teach you the self-control to use your body to produce good things sustainably, that will teach you to seek real good prudently, and will also teach you to cultivate relationships carefully. Just as your life can become a desert, so too can it become a lush garden.

Day 11:  In the desert, during the heat of the day, mirages may appear in our vision.  These mirages appear because our vision is limited and often faulty; the truth of it is that the water we believe is present in the distance is heated air through which the sunlight has been refracted.

In the same way, in the spiritual desert we may find that what appears in our limited spiritual vision to be the Water of Life is merely an illusion, that the desires we are fixated upon are not a refreshing pool of water at all, but rather more hot air over burning sand.

Day 12:  In the desert, the long silences, broken only by blowing sand and our own weary footsteps, often feel oppressive.  The silence prompts us to feel keenly the absence of companionship, and it gives us no rest from the rushing cacophony of our own anxious thoughts.

In the spiritual desert of Lent, silence can feel oppressive as we weather temptations and trudge along in our fasting and almsgiving and prayer.  It is easy to feel alone in our spiritual struggle and anxious about our weaknesses which are laid bare by our attempts at self-denial.  And yet it is in the silence that we finally hear the still, small voice calling us back to the Garden, that primal oasis where the Living Water flows abundantly and our hearts rest in Him.

Day 13:  In the desert, we must be ever-vigilant, for the chilling nights are profoundly dangerous, just as are the burning days.  The coyotes are prowling and the snakes are even more difficult to see as they wait for unsuspecting prey.  It is easy to die in the desert night.

So too in the spiritual desert, it is not just in the heat of the fiery passions that we must be vigilant.  Even when the bodily passions have gone cold, the demons are prowling and the Evil One waits for us to stumble and fall into the pit of Hades where we will suffer spiritual death.

Day 14: The desert is a wonderful gift to us; the sparseness and dryness of the desert lead us to yearn for the lush garden where the water so necessary for life is abundant and pervades our existence. In reminding us of how essential the water is for us, the desert prompts us to turn back toward the garden where we can find life once again.

In the same way, the spiritual desert is a wonderful gift to us.  The sparse and dry spiritual landscapes which our souls traverse help us to understand how very good Christ is, He who brings us Living Water, the water of eternal life to which He calls us, the water which springs forever in the Garden to which He alone can restore us.

Day 15:  In the desert, dust is ever-present, a reality which permeates the landscape and, when the winds blow, reminds us that what appears to be small and harmless can become a grave danger to us.  It is a reminder of our fragility and mortality, a warning that we shall return to the dust in the end.

So too in the spiritual desert, distractions are ever-present, and the images of sin permeate the landscape of our lives.  What appear to be small and harmless entertainments, indulgences, and lusts quickly become grave dangers to us when the winds of life begin to strengthen and we are toppled over as we try to carry all these things into the wind of life's challenges.  We are thereby reminded of our weakness, that we will face death in the end, and given a warning that spiritual death is very near.

Day 16: The desert foliage blooms in brilliant color where the river flows, the steady stream of water allowing the flourishing of plants and animals.  In the same way, we can flourish when we live in contact with the steady stream of the water of life, the living water which is found by those of us who seek it and given to those of us who ask for it.  We can seek this living water and ask for it; we can also continue dropping our empty rusted buckets into the same old well from which we get our familiar pleasures, increasingly finding that the water from the well satisfies our thirst less and less as we drink it.

Those of us whose wells of familiar pleasure bring forth water which no longer satisfies can begin to move ourselves across the desert to live on the river, enjoying the living water that allows us to flourish.  To travel the desert is difficult, but for living water that will help our lives grow into brilliant gardens, the trials of the journey are worth the glory of the destination.

Day 17:  In the desert, we are forced to meet ourselves.  Our physical weaknesses are frequently on display, our mental fortitude is shown to wear down quickly in the face of the tedium of a day's walk in the bleak wasteland, and our hearts yearn for even a moment of connection with another person who can pull us into a moment of joy that we cannot find so easily within.

So too in the spiritual desert we are forced to meet our own souls, so weak and frail as we strive for union with the God who created us, who sent His only Son to redeem us, and restores us in the living waters by the Holy Spirit who first hovered over those waters.  In recognizing our weakness humility arises, and as we turn to Him in repentance our souls finally bend low enough to accept the honor of eternal glory which our God so desires to give us.

Day 18: The desert is a place of cleansing, not because there is plenty of water with which to wash our bodies gently, but because like the strongest soap it is abrasive and harsh, wearing down the rough edges created by the dirt we have collected on our bodies.

In the same way, the spiritual desert is a place of cleansing for our souls. The cleansing of the desert is painful because it abrades the filth clinging deep in the recesses of our being, but it is a pain that allows us to experience the immense joy of living in freedom from the filth that was weighing upon us, making our lives purer so that we can spend our time loving openly in the brilliant sunshine rather than hiding our lusts in the cold dirty darkness.

Day 19: In the desert, we must leave behind many of the comforts of the city, of the lush forest, or the ocean villa.  Our priorities must change in order to thrive in the desert; we must sacrifice many comforts in order to retain what is most valuable: life itself.

If we would take up our cross and follow Christ, we must follow Him into the desert, leaving behind our comforts just as He did. Just like the rich man who wanted to follow Christ, but in the end could not let go of the comforts of his wealth, we so often do not want to relinquish our comforts and follow Him into the desert. Following Him into the desert would mean that we and our priorities would need to change, and how we struggle against anything that would ask us to step out of our comfort zone and into the harsh, dry land where we can grow precisely because we are uncomfortable!

And so we follow Him into the spiritual desert, because this via dolorosa is the road to eternal life.

Day 20:  In the desert, as we learn the perils of wandering in the sun's burning heat, we at first might feel as if the sun is the enemy.  It prevents us from traveling at whatever time is convenient for us.  Its heat prompts us to seek shelter, forces us to wear garments that cover our bodies thoroughly, and makes us painfully thirsty for the cool water of the oasis.

So too in the spiritual desert, as we learn that our God is a consuming fire whose heat and light we cannot escape, we might feel as if He is our enemy.  He prevents us from actualizing our transient pleasures whenever our desires for them arise.  In becoming closer to Him, we find that we must be transformed as our impurities are burned away in the fires of divine love.  And yet, this is the only way to quench our thirst for the Son who is the Living Water.

Day 21: In the desert, Christ faces those most difficult of human temptations: the lure of enjoying comfort food, the lure of attaining absolute power, and the lure of believing that we deserve to be saved because of our own righteousness. He emerges from the desert having resisted those temptations successfully, showing us that even in our human weakness it is possible to resist our temptations and emerge from the difficulty of our lives as masters of our passions rather than slaves to them.

So too in the spiritual deserts through which our souls travel, we will face the temptations of finding comfort in food rather than in prayer, seeking power over others rather than cultivating love for them, and being sure of our own righteousness rather than working out our own salvation in fear and trembling.  What a sweet victory it is to overcome the temptation to take refuge in transient comforts and false senses of security, emerging from the desert freed from the ties that bound us before entering the desert!

Day 22: In the desert we learn that our great enemy is fear; it is fear that prompts us to drink all our water quickly instead of rationing it so that we might live. It is fear that has us spending all of our energy in a short burst to try to escape the desert rather than adapting to it so that we might learn how to live. Life in the desert requires us to conquer our fears, to make our choices based not on what is frightening to us but rather on what is truly good for us.

In the same way, fear is our great enemy in the spiritual life; it is fear that prompts us to enjoy all the transient pleasures of life quickly, leaving nothing to sustain us later in our journey.  It is fear that has us desperately trying to escape the spiritual desert by getting lost in the fantasies so readily available for our consumption, trying to avoid the necessary changes to ourselves that will change our quality of life for the better.  Life in the spiritual desert helps us to conquer our fears by prompting us to face them; thus we can begin to choose freely the love that is offered to us rather than running from it in fear because it would change us profoundly to love so deeply.

Day 23: In the desert, honesty becomes a necessity; if we are not honest with ourselves about our limitations and our resources, then we will make the wrong decisions. If we are not honest with our traveling companions about our limitations and our resources, then they will make the wrong decisions. The desert has plenty of room for movement, but little room for error; wrong decisions often lead to a long death. In the desert, honesty is often the difference between life and death.

Just as in the desert honesty with ourselves and others is a necessity for life, so to is it a necessity in the spiritual desert of Lent. We will only grow and become healed of our wounds when we admit our weaknesses to ourselves and others so that pride, the source of spiritual death, will not overtake us; and thus we will find the gift of humility, the water of the spiritual life which sustains us and allows us to thrive in the spiritual desert.

Day 25:  In the desert, we can learn very quickly that we are still very much like children.  We may not cry out as often, but we often feel painful cravings for food and water at all hours.  Our constant sense of wanting, wanting all the day long for a cool place to lay, and then wanting all night long for a warm place to drink and eat, is like the child who has not yet learned self-control, who is still enslaved to their impulses.

In the same way, in the spiritual desert we are very much like children.  Even while the brilliance of the Son shines on us in the Eucharist, we long to lie down and enjoy the cold comforts of the flesh.  Even while the dark night of soul reminds us of the glory of the Son, we long to lie down and enjoy the brief warmth of our carnal passions.  We are the spiritual children of the Father who have not yet learned self-control.

Day 26: In the desert it is easy to despair, to look at the beautiful sunset and see only the dangers of the cold night ahead. It is much more difficult to hope, to trust that traveling through the dangers of the cold night will help us to grow in strength and wisdom.

If we give in to despair, letting the dangers fill our vision so that we can see nothing else, then we are looking forward to our own doom. But if we hope, filling our vision with the ways in which we can thrive, then we are looking forward to our own flourishing. Because we tend to find those things on which we direct our gaze, it is better to put aside despair and hold on to hope, directing our gaze toward that which allows us to flourish!

Day 27: In the desert, water can be difficult to find, and one of the best ways to find water is to go down to the low and shadowed places, for that is where water can collect and remain despite the assault of the blazing sun. Though we may have to lower ourselves to capture it, the water that sustains us is worth it.

In the same way, one of the best ways to find living water in the spiritual desert of Lent is to seek out the low shadowed places in our lives with sincerity, lowering ourselves in humility so that we might drink of the water that remains despite our sufferings, a water we can count on to keep us from death. Let us remember this water and return to it, and waste not the gift we receive in the desert by carrying it with us always!

Day 28: In the desert, there will be times when disaster looms, not just in the mind, but in the harsh dryness of reality. During those times when we exist on the hard edge between life and death, our self-control exhausted, then we will fall back on our habits and it is our habits which will decide whether we live or die.  Our life or death will not be decided in that moment, but rather by the hundreds of decisions we made over the course of months and years which formed our habits. Now is the time to build the habits that lead to life so we might not lose it later.

In the same way, now is the acceptable time to build the habits that lead to life in the spiritual desert of Lent, habits that we can count on in the moments when we come to the edge of spiritual life and spiritual death so that we might pass from death on to a new life in the garden that awaits us at the end of our journey through the desert.

Day 29: In the desert, we learn that it is best to be grateful for the oasis we reach at the end of our day's journey. We do not harbor resentment over the difficulties of the journey, but rather delight fully in the joys of the oasis, slaking our thirst on water which is truly necessary for life.

In the same way, we learn in the spiritual desert of Lent that it is best to be grateful for our daily prayer. Though the dryness of our daily toils abounds, we can delight fully in the joys of prayer, in lifting up our burdens and casting them off so that we can slake our spiritual thirst in true freedom, drinking and savoring gratefully the water which is necessary for the spiritual life.

Day 33: The desert is an uncomfortable place for those who are not accustomed to a life in which the essentials are what drive our decisions and our pleasures are mostly simple and necessary ones. But for those of us who live in the desert, we can become comfortable with our lack of comfort, and this is both an opportunity and a challenge. We can then come to see our life in the desert as a mundane life of drudgery, our comfort with the desert transforming into a weariness and resentment of its difficulties. Or we can understand that our life in the desert is an opportunity for learning and growing, our comfort transforming into an invitation to thrive as we travel through the desert in search of the lush garden that awaits us when we find the river that sustains life.

So too in the spiritual desert we can become comfortable with the self-denial requisite for our spiritual growth, choosing to see it is a needless imposition of hardship on us by God, or choosing to understand that our life in the spiritual desert of Lent is an opportunity we have been given to grow in such a way that we can transform ourselves in Christ's living water, following Him to Paradise.

Day 35:  In the desert, those who learn to survive and thrive find a peace of heart that surpasses the understanding of those who have never freed themselves from the luxuries and comforts of the city, the palace, and the garden.  The desert life is a centered life, a firmly grounded life unlike that of the ever-changing cities and palaces and gardens where novelty and transient pleasures reign supreme.

In the same way, those who learn to thrive in the spiritual life find a peace that surpasses all understanding.  They are centered on a life of prayer and firmly grounded in laying down their lives for the good of others; they are not ruled by a compulsive search for new things or brief sensual pleasures.

Day 37: In the desert, the wise travelers seek out companions to travel with them. In the dry harsh land where life is difficult, fellow travelers enable us to share our labors, our sorrows, and our joys. We can support them when they are weak and they can do the same for us, ensuring that we all have a better chance of reaching the water of life at the end of our journey.

In the same way, traveling the spiritual desert of Lent is better with companions with whom we can share our spiritual labors, our sorrows, and our joys. We can support one another in prayer and fasting so that we are all strengthened in such a way that we all have a better chance of reaching the water of eternal life in the lush garden of Paradise.

Day 38: In the desert, when we find and follow the river of life, we may notice that it takes us over rocky ground as it draws us lower into the valley where the lush garden awaits at the river's edge. There is no way to reach the garden without traveling the rocky ground and lowering ourselves into the valley.

In the same way, in the spiritual desert of Lent, we must lower ourselves into the valley of humility and endure the rocky hardships of life in order to reach Paradise where we can drink of the water of eternal life in the garden to which we are meant to return.

Day 39: In the desert, the experienced travelers know that while the lush garden that lies not far ahead is the better destination, it was the dry desert that taught us to appreciate the bounty of water in the lush garden.  And that it was the harshness and the bleak landscapes of the desert that taught us the value of the gentle pastoral environs we encounter in the fields and forests of vibrant greenery.  And that it was the truths we learned about ourselves in the desert which prepared us to live responsibly in the lush garden.

In the same way, in the spiritual desert of Lent, the experienced know that it was the spiritual dryness of Lent that taught us to appreciate He who is the Living Water all the more.  And it was the veiled glory of the sacred artwork that showed us once again how glorious the beauty of our churches is when that art is once again unveiled.  And it was truths we learned by fasting and almsgiving which prepared us to live responsibly in times of plenty, knowing that we have more to give the poor when we live sacrificially as Christ lived.

Day 40: As we leave the desert, following the river of life to the garden, it is only natural that we rush toward the garden with joy, anticipating the abundant life we will find there. It is the desert which prepares us to live life with loving gratitude for the immense wealth of the garden, for we know what it is like to live without the lush provisions of the garden.

In the same way, as we leave the spiritual desert of Lent, it is only natural that we rush toward the Risen Christ with great joy, anticipating the abundant life he has prepared for us in Paradise. The spiritual desert of Lent has prepared us to accept this gift of the risen life with humble gratitude, for we know what it is like to have a sparse life on the burning sands and hard rocks, a life without the lush abundance of the eternally flowing water in Paradise.

By Frodosleveland - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34783600

Note: The above is an image of the Valle de la Luna in the Atacama desert.

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