It is 4:30 am and, unless you are in the car before 5:15, the chance of making your 6:45 time at the gym will be slim to none. Instead of an unhurried date with your own soul, you listen to a podcast through your car speakers while sitting in morning traffic. The gym is packed with others just like you, hoping to fool their bodies into thinking they have an active lifestyle and that the scale might just indicate as much. Hair still wet from the post-workout shower you swear and honk your way to work, barely squeezing into the last available spot at the last available pay parking lot at the last available pre-late moment before being driven into the wilderness that is your day at a desk.
9:30 pm. Children are wrestled away from pixel-glow and sound byte stew and chased to their rooms. You’d make love but the idea of finding yet more energy is repugnant to people already half asleep, already planning the next day, even before you can catch up with this one. You kiss your partner, roll the other way, and, in what seems like moments later, hear your phone alarm telling you it’s time to start all over again.
* * *
Abba Antony sat in his cell. The day was shimmering hot and the desert air was punctuated by a concoction of dust, bugs, and the generally parched life that survives among the softly breathing stones of a lazy earth. In his cell it is dark and smells putrid, like too many days without even a fresh breeze to drive out the stale desert. It is the aroma of thought.
He sits with his back against the wall on a stone shaped perfectly to his buttocks, where he spends countless hours simply being Antony. On the other wall is a small ledge built of stray stone and debris that acts as an altar. To one side are the last fragments of his meager meal, unleavened bread, now hard and brittle, like the hands that broke it.
He owns a shredded, tattered copy of the Gospels, a few small candles, an embarrassingly threadbare cloak and the deep ecstasies afforded an old mystic of silent prayer. He had not seen another soul for over two weeks, not since the last colloquy of seekers had come from the towns for spiritual counsel, a service he rendered as often as was needed.
The rest of the time, he prayed in the broad, spacious silence of the Egyptian desert.
* * *
If you are like me, your life is the former but your soul longs for the latter. And, unless your name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, you have not lived much of your life alone. Nor have you experienced much in the way of solitude. None of us have in fact.
When the sun sinks low in the evening sky is the time shadows are most insistent, pronounced, surprising. It gives the impression that the world is somehow larger than the sum of its parts. We are the solid matter behind the suggestions of our own shadows. Without our physical presence, nothing appears. Yet, conversely, without shadows we are but ghosts. There is no substance from which is cast forward any proof of our existence.
We live among ghosts and shadows. Before our structures of commerce, built of hollow bones and the featureless droning of our money-lust, lived taller souls. Antony of Egypt. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Julian of Norwich. Bernard de Clairvaux. Mechthild of Magdeburg. John of the Cross. Thomas Merton. They were those whose smallness cast forward agreatness – holy mustard seeds dwarfing the hungry world around them. And their shadows have not been silent. Nor have they been still.
If we are to become greater than our shadows would suggest, we would be wise to envelope ourselves in the calming grey shade of saints who have soaked up enough light that they shield us from God’s glory that would immolate us in our tepid, backward lives. These luminaries shine out “like shook foil” (thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins) even as Moses’ face shone after gazing into the great abyss that is the face of I Am. We, too, can do the same.
* * *
How? How do two scenarios so utterly different find commonality? How do the prismic lives of these great saints enter our own ashen experience of contemporary chaos? Is it possible for the ascetic, unitive consciousness of Antony to become our own? Can he who had no wife and children, no mortgage or debt, no rush hour anxiety or job insecurities to deal with speak into our lives? How do such ancient voices, so removed from the modern experience of shameless hurry, find their place within us?
Right, neither do I.
Instead, I offer a frightening consideration: those who long for the nourishing desert silence must be willing to live there first. For, in the desert is found the abundant life, the a priori life, of those least satisfied with anything less; with nothing more. In other words, what Antony and his ilk would tell us is that, to be as still and unshakably unified as they, we cannot simply use them as therapeutic platitudes to shield us from the worst of our game.
We change our game to find their life.
* * *
Louise and Warren used to own two cars, one each for work. They generally parked their camper truck and small boat on one side of their triple-car driveway that fronted a 3500 square foot Tudor style home in the gentrified, shiny part of town. His work with a large software company, combined with her consulting business typically brought in a healthy six figures.
Now, Louise hosts whomever comes to the door of their communal home, bracing their days with warm fire and hot soup, a blanket and conversation. It is Warren’s turn to act as community vicar and offer morning prayers. Filling the simple living room, looking not unlike the common area of a large hermitage, were a host of icons, a candled prayer station, four kneelers, and a prominent Communion table that doubled as a dinner board.
They invested all they had in this new little community. Once they sought to find a faith sufficient to uphold their life. Now, they seek a life sufficient to indemnify their deepening faith. They live their lives hidden in the safety of holy shadows, cast long and still by those whose silent voices speak the loudest.
Someone who recently saw the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings asked me how a good God could drown the Egyptian soldiers in the sea. Here are a few thoughts that came to me.
Our rabbis taught, “When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”Read More Post a comment (0)
October 1981. I was _____ years old, a touring musician, forty pounds overweight, an alcoholic, and a chain smoker. And I was a newly converted follower of Jesus. I sat in a little evangelical church in Calgary, Alberta with fellow musician and touring buddy, Trent (pseudonym). I was blissfully happy, possessing a kind of post-pothead perma-grin that caused some to smile, others to pull their children closer. It was my first time in church for many years. Allow me to recount my first impressions.
“I should’ve showered first.”
“These people all kind of look the same. But happy.”
“Wow, husbands and wives are holding hands…in public.” But, for our purposes here-
“This ‘praise band’ is kinda hokey. But man, these people love to sing.”
Thus began my education in congregational music.Read More Post a comment (0)
How… might we begin to develop our ability to read the Bible more Christocentrically—that is, as a book that speaks everywhere to us of Christ?
First, it is essential that we develop the skills of attentiveness outlined in chapter ten and have some experience of using those skills in our reading of the Gospels. Until we have learned, at a deep level, to discern and respond to the presence of Christ in the Gospel narratives (where he is most conspicuously present), we will always struggle to identify how, say, Leviticus or Job might be revealing Christ.Read More Post a comment (0)
If one could point to a distressing pendulum swing in our culture, deadly to spiritual growth, it would be the meteoric rise of tribalism. It’s a kind of mob mentality that is more interested in self-preservation than actual family expansion. It is the pursuit of control through brand-specific convincing rather than the compassion of conversion.
Merriam-Webster defines tribalism as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.” In other words, to be best at tribal mentality is to scorn (or worse) those outside one’s tribe. Exclusivism becomes valuable currency in such a paradigm. The freedom offered by true grace becomes a dangerous liability.
More distressing still is the fact that it is nothing new. It has been a human proclivity all along. It’s the “my god’s bigger than yours” syndrome. My king’s mightier than yours. My clan’s greater than yours. My bloodline’s purer than yours. My kids are smarter than yours. My abs are tighter than yours. My crayons last longer than yours.Read More Post a comment (4)
I recently blogged about accepting people as they are. I received many appreciative emails, especially about this line: Expectations are the early stages of resentment. I also received some good questions. Here are my responses.
I have been praying for the Persecuted Church for over 30 years. I receive prayer points from several organizations working to bring the light of Christ to areas where the Church is the bruised reed and dimly burning wick of Isaiah 42:3. Over the years, I have heard of many miracles and answered prayers; I have also seen a shift in the tactics of Satan. In the 1980s and 90s, the Church in Communist lands dominated the prayer lists. Now, Muslim nations top the list of places of intense persecution for God’s people.
It is with great sorrow that I read about the kidnapping of the Chibok girls from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haran over a year ago. In pain, I continue to read about the hundreds of women and children who have been recently rescued by the Nigerian army: women who have seen their husbands killed and their children scattered. Woman who have been forced at gun point to convert to Islam and marry Boko Haram fighters. Women traumatized at levels I cannot even imagine, their homes and families devastated. All over the world, as I sit at home warm and well-fed, children are denied education, men refused jobs or jailed simply because they seek to follow Christ, women live in fear that relatives will discover their faith and kill them.Read More Post a comment (0)
Some of us have an “inner judge” who notices when others don’t do what we think they should do. Maybe they’re not doing their “fair share” or not following through as promised or they’re promoting political policies that we dislike. What do we do with that “inner judge”? I’m on a learning curve of accepting people as they are. (I’m mindful that your journey might be different—that of speaking up—but I think this will still make sense!)
Here’s what my progress has looked like so far: I’m part of a group that highly values accepting others as they are, but I’ve noticed that group members aren’t very welcoming toward a certain person in the group who might be described as “socially disabled.”Read More Post a comment (0)
And Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. – Mark 6:31
I once went on retreat by accident. It was early September just before I was to start my second year of grad school. Instead of spending the summer break getting some much-needed rest, I accepted an opportunity to earn money by working full-time at my regularly part-time job. Because of my years of experience with the company, I became the “go-to girl” for covering other people’s vacations. At one point, I was actually doing 5 different jobs simultaneously! To get through this intense time, I clung to God. I prayed, usually out loud, on my drive to work and all the way home again. I was grateful for God’s sustaining power and for the additional income. But by summer’s end, I was even more exhausted than I had imagined I’d be.Read More Post a comment (6)
By earthly standards Jesus was perhaps the most colossal failure in history. His decidedly understated birth under less than ideal circumstances to an unremarkable blue-collar family in a trailer park town (no offense intended – it was the right metaphor here!), who, along with his siblings, would always live with suspicions of his bastard mystique, under oppressive conditions, with little hope of “success”, and few options for “advancement”, all without the ear of the very population he sought to lead, didn’t position him well for anything but.
A whirlwind ministry full of strange, unexpected teachings made him a constant provocateur. His grassroots acceptance by the lowest, dirtiest, and unlikeliest of his society brought him into sharp disagreement with the top down hierarchy of his own religious milieu. And, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to suggest even his own family misunderstood him. Perhaps they were even a little embarrassed by him.Read More Post a comment (1)