There’s a vacillation between garden and wilderness, orientation and disorientation, throughout Scripture. There is prosperity and exile. You know, Gardens symbolize health—floral blooms and broccoli. But every gardener knows that no matter how hard you try to keep wilderness out, wilderness always finds a way into the garden, like a groundhog that sneaks in and eats all of your freshly planted cucumbers.
In the beginning of Genesis, the cosmos was chaos, a wilderness, until God ushered in this order and formed a world. On the sixth day of creation, God plants adamah (Adam), or these divine-dirt people, in the garden of Eden. That’s fine until they’re cast out into the wilderness. In the wilderness, Cain murders Abel. That’s the way it works. A Psalm of praise is quickly followed by a Psalm of lament—or two—or three. Don’t forget that there’s more prayers of lament than praise.
The wilderness conjures up different images in our imagination, usually Arizona or New Mexico. Tumbleweed, cacti, and the Breaking Bad RV with its methamphetamine exhaust billowing out of cracked windows.
In Scripture, the wilderness takes innumerable shapes. It’s the Israelites wandering for forty years before entering the land of milk and honey. There, they learned about sharing bread. Or, it’s Noah rocking on the ark through wind and wave on the ark as he cares for creation by scrubbing donkey cages and feeding camels. Elijah flees to the wilderness, Jonah enters the wilderness through a fish’s mouth, John the Baptist goes to the desert to call for repentance. Jesus was hurled there Spirit in the wilderness for forty days of temptation. All of these periods of wilderness were used to remind the people of their identity.
We’re in the season of Lent, which is the church’s wilderness season of fasting, repentance, and self-denial. Couple that with a pandemic, and we’re in the middle of a desert without any streams of water or toilet paper. Except my older brother, he bought a bidet this year and now he’s just relishing his good fortune. There’s no anesthesia this year; we go all the way in and there’s no trail out.
People have asked me, ‘how do I be a Christian during this season—the wilderness season?’ The real answer is this: I don’t know. None of of us have lived through a pandemic. We’re all making this up as we go along. We follow the best advice given to us by physicians, like practice physical distancing, which doesn’t mean social distancing. Hugs are illegal, relationships aren’t. You can still connect with each other through screens and cards with stamps.
Those are all good things, but they don’t seem very heroic. A lot of people I know wish that they could do more. It makes the church feel a little puny, right?
I wonder if we’re forgetting about one of the greatest streams in the Christian tradition—monasticism. The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that we have mothers and fathers who know the spiritual nourishment of being alone. I mean, these are the kinds of people who voluntarily quarantine themselves into deeper union with God. They choose wilderness.
What would it be like to practice a kind of monasticism for a season?
In the 3rd Century, ancient Christians escaped to the desert just as Christianity was gaining a degree of prominence. The church began to cozy up to the Roman Empire and disciples of Jesus had to flee metropolitan centers to live out true discipleship in the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. This is the rationale: if everyone is a Christian, is anyone really a Christian? The original hipsters. If everyone wears flannel, does flannel even mean anything anymore?
Many Christians began to worry that they were more faithful when they were less comfortable—like when they were being eaten by lions or burned at the stake to light up Nero’s dinner parties. They had to leave their comfortable houses to really practice Christianity; they had to get away to take stock of their lives. It’s as if the stars in the sky can only be seen when all of the lights are turned off.
These Christians began to live simply; all they needed was a set of clothing, a Bible, and some straw to weave a basket. One of my professors used to put it this way: people started taking Christianity seriously enough to give up money, sex, and power. That’s crazy. But it’s an interesting kind of crazy. They found their sustenance in the one thing that can’t be taken away—Jesus. Everything else is in this world is up for grabs, so you might as well put it to death now. The monks made their homes in tombs and caves, dying to themselves, and emerging out of the dark born again. And the wilderness was transformed—no longer a desert, but a sanctuary of God’s love. 1
Sometimes God calls Christians into solitude—to be planted so deeply into the soil that they can’t be seen. But when they sprout they’ll provide shade for the whole church. Soon, the desert had become a city, as Christians began to flock to the wilderness to experience something of God.
This was the beginning of a tradition that bled into new expressions of monasticism. Later, the church gave us St. Benedict who developed a rule for an alternate way of communal life together based on ora et labora, or praying and working, together. Francis renounced his father’s wealth and began to beg for alms; a decade later there were five thousand friars in Europe. And then, there’s Ignatius and Teresa and Luther and Julian of Norwich and on and on.
In every generation, God uses monasticism to teach us how to be the church once again—that simplicity, solitude, and prayer. The rhythms of grace. Now, let me be careful not to romanticize the wilderness; it usually sucks. And it hurts. The desert fathers battled with demons—constantly. And the world laughed. By the way, do you know what they complained about most often? Boredom. Instead of running from it, they faced this ‘noonday’ demon head on.
This season is incredibly lonely, but I think we can start to learn how to become alone in the right ways. The Christian tradition has made a distinction between loneliness and solitude. When you are alone, does it feel like loneliness or solitude? They’re so similar, yet they’re antonyms. Loneliness is being alone with despair, while solitude is being alone with a purpose—with God. Paul Tillich puts it this way, “loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The monastic communities teach us about solitude, not loneliness.
Solitude teaches us to be with ourselves. Think back to your life three weeks ago and the pervasive busyness. Now, many of us are wide open. Here’s the bad news: you can’t distract yourself. Not with meetings, extracurriculars, or even church—loud music by Hillsong United. We can’t cover our nakedness, as did Adam and Eve when they became conscious of their humanity. One of the gifts of this season, if we can call anything a gift, is the chance to take a step back from the busyness and consumerist values that rule our lives like a grueling slave master.
The desert fathers used to have this mantra: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” There, in our cells, we’re face to face with things we cannot escape. Mother Teresa used to say that “God is a friend of silence.” And our problem is that we’re enemies of silence. Silence makes us profoundly uncomfortable. And I don’t mean external silence; it’s the internal silence that is difficult. We get quiet and suddenly there’s anger, fear, distraction, self-doubt. When all of that is uncovered, we’re forced to take it to God or a neighbor for consolation.
Evagrius, a desert father, advised his followers to divide oneself into two parts: “a consoler and the other, the object of the consolation.”
Sounds a bit like cognitive behavioral therapy.
I’ve also noticed this: the church is moving back into rhythms of prayer. At any given moment, I’ll pull up facebook or instagram and one of my friends is praying. Granted, I have a lot of friends who are pastors. Still, we’re lifting our voices to God in the morning, midday, evening, and at night with compline. They have simple, paired down music—a cappella voices or a simple strum of the guitar. A few candles flicker in the screen. It’s as if the church is learning to love Scripture and prayer again. It feels a bit monastic, doesn’t it?
“By our prayers, the world is kept moving,” said the early desert fathers. Can we treasure this time alone in the quiet with God? Structure your life in the rhythms of prayer. Pray in the morning. Pray at noon. Pray before bed. Let prayer be the lifeblood of your day.
One last thing on solitude: tribalism has evaporated at least for a season and we’re acting like the church—together. Though we’re alone, we’ve been brought together by virtue of wireless internet and the waters of our baptism. We’re starting to realize that guests and strangers are to be received as a new incarnation of Christ. How monastic of us! Some of the desert fathers would say, “We don’t retreat from the world, we retreat for the world.”
Our inwardness is meant to turn us outward and compassion becomes the fruit of solitude. Maybe the Corona virus is leading us to realize just how deeply we need each other and how intertwined our lives are with one another. We can’t live alone. Maybe most of all we’ve learned that we can’t live without God. The God who created us out of community, won’t save us without community.
And so may the church learn again the rhythms of solitude, prayer, and community. In other words, may we learn something of monasticism.
1. This was Jason Byassee's observation--somewhere.