By Norris J. Chumley
Author, Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence
The forty-day period leading up to Easter (Pascha in Greek) is perhaps the most important season for Christians. During this time, believers self-reflect and contemplate on the Great Paschal Mystery: the total forgiveness and salvation God gives us through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The word “Lent” is itself not so ancient, or specifically Christian, as it is generally thought to be derivative from the Old English term “lenctin” or in modern English, “to lengthen.” In this time of transition from winter to spring, the days grow longer and the weather changes from bitter cold to warm spring. The dormancy and silence of winter gives way to nature’s resurrection and glorious rebirth in springtime.
The Lenten period of forty days is itself important, as told in the New Testament. Christ suffered, was tempted, fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days as found in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13. What did Christ teach us with his endurance of hunger, temptation and suffering? “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”
What do these teachings mean to us, some 2,000 years later, in terms of Lent, and in our everyday lives? It is all about following God, depending on God, and worshiping God … in renunciation … in silence.
Finding and communing with God is why we give up dependence on certain (less-than-healthy) foods, destructive thoughts and harmful actions – and try to spend a period of time in silence and prayer, not just at Lent, but allowing for a little time of peace every day. This time of season after the bountiful autumn harvests when plants and fruits have withered away in the death freeze of winter speaks to us of this peaceful silence. Another way to look at this is to take the time to gather and harvest our thoughts, accomplishments, distractions and vicissitudes in order to focus on new ideas and actions, and allow for God’s gifts of renewal to come.
Just as Jesus Christ gave Himself up for us, enduring temptations, torture and ultimate crucifixion, this is a time to give ourselves to God. By putting ourselves aside; surrendering the cacophonies inside; taking stock of our strengths and weaknesses and giving our whole lives to God, we focus and sharpen our thoughts, we move past our problems and errors (sins), and by the grace of God, we prepare for our own resurrection and salvation to come.
As Christ entered the desert for forty days, we can too. The word “desert” has its origins in Latin: desertum “something left waste,” from deserere to “leave, forsake”. The Greeks have a word for desert, eremos, which means “abandonment.” The word “hermit” is a derivation. Yet the isolated, inhospitable desert holds attraction as a place to find deep spiritual wisdom, as also evidenced by the desert history of Judaism and Christianity. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, fleeing perils searching for God’s word and salvation. Moses, while tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks of sheep, climbed the desert boulders of Mount Sinai to answer God shining down from the clouds, and in the non-consuming flames of a burning bush. Moses retreated to the desert for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments.God drew desperate people to the desert and appeared to them, assuring salvation from the limitations of human existence and worldly problems. The desert is a mystery: it is vast and void of life, because no human being can exist on sand and rock alone with little or no water, in inhuman heat of day and the freezing cold of night. Yet the desert offers sacred visions and the presence of God, once one has surrendered their own understandings and experiences of worldly comforts and symbols of false gods, or brought to the edge of life and death.
How are we to find the silence and peace of the desert in today’s busy world? John Chryssavgis in his excellent book, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers writes, “The desert is an attraction beyond oneself; it is an invitation to transfiguration. It was neither a better way, nor an easier way. The desert elders were not out to prove a point: they were there to prove themselves.”
Outwardly, it may appear that the early Christians experienced great suffering and trials in the desert; having to constantly worry about water and food, weather and harsh conditions. Externally, it may well have appeared that these people were dancing with insanity, wrestling with mental demons and casting away visions of the devil with constant prayer and meditation.
However, some of the writings of the desert fathers and mothers paint a far more peaceful and joyous picture of desert life. The reasons they left civilization and their families behind were to find peace, joy and love with God, through the Holy Spirit and the Second Person Jesus Christ. They were in desperate need to free themselves from a multitude of useless thoughts (logismoi) and self-destructive actions dictated by uncontrolled desires.
They wrestled with demons to win the victory of catharsis through grace. They endured suffering in order to discipline and cleanse their bodies and minds through total immersion into Christ. They surrendered their lives to the practices of stillness, watchfulness and attentiveness in pure silence in order to see and hear the words and beauty of God Himself. They looked for peace and found it in the complete isolation and silence of the desert.