To Cultivate the Desert in this Jungle of Words

To Cultivate the Desert in this Jungle of Words December 22, 2011

Words can be tricky things. Words spoken. Words written. Words thought of. Words acted upon. Words seemingly written in clarity. Words being read in a fog of misunderstanding. Words with only one meaning. Words with many meanings. A writer’s or blogger’s stock-in-trade is words. And words are the ultimate double-edged swords.

It’s funny that, as I am writing this, I only now notice that one letter separates word from sword. St. James knew this well. Read chapter three of his letter for his cautionary tale on words and the responsibility of their use.

It seems like a million years ago that I wrote these words about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were short on words and long on actions. I have said before that, though I admire them, I cannot sell all I have and head to the desert to pray and to wait. Maybe in the future. But for now, my vocation is different than theirs, as I am a husband and a father. But still, the way of the desert has a meaning for me. I’m just not sure that I have the words to convey it to my wife, my children, or to you. Perhaps words are superfluous.

The portrait above is taken from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar. It is from the third “view” of this work and is entitled The Temptation of St. Anthony. Zooming in on the panel closely below, I see myself lying there instead of Anthony the Great. I’m the guy who is beset by all those tempters, those demons, those thoughts. At least that is how it seems, especially when I try to deal with them all on my own. Like my buddy Qohelth says, “see what I discovered: God made man simple, but they get lost in their many thoughts.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

Something else comes to my mind when looking upon this painting. When I insist on acting alone, God seems far, far away. He is way up there in that yellowish splash of illumination in the upper portion of the panel. That is how it seems when I try to make my way through this world without asking for His help. I am trapped down here in the muck, held down by these troublesome creatures assaulting me from all sides.

From The Life of Antony, St. Athansius writes the following description of the scene above:

First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time.

But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful.

How did St. Anthony break free? I suspect it was a lot like this story related by another Desert Father named Abba Elias,

An old man was living in a temple and the demons came to say to him, ‘Leave this place which belongs to us,’ and the old man said, ‘No place belongs to you.’ Then they began to scatter his palm leaves about, one by one, and the old man went on gathering them together with perseverance.

A little later, the devil took his hand and pulled him to the door. When the old man reached the door, he seized the lintel with the other hand, crying out, ‘Jesus save me.’ Immediately the devil fled away. Then the old man began to weep.

Then the Lord said to him, ‘Why are you weeping?’, and the old man said, ‘Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this.’ The Lord said to him, ‘You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you.’

St. Anthony survived the temptations, but also warned that they would bother us until our dying day. Having lived to 105 years of age, I’ll take his word for it. I don’t try going it alone much any more. Instead, I stand on the shoulders of these Christian giants and do as they did; I ask Jesus for help.

My patron, Abba Macarius, taught that for prayer,

“There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.”

Ah, the KISS method of prayer, keep it simple silly!

I daresay that the conflict grows fiercer in the world, let alone in the mirage of the oasis I see in my mind. What to do? Try and cultivate a desert within if I can’t flee to one without. Three words may help in this endeavor: Solitude, Silence, and Prayer. Over my next several posts, I hope to try to find ways to bring the desert experience described by these three words closer to us in the here and now. I’ll try not to bore you to tears! Maybe we can help each other find ways to do this together. But again, without Our Lord, and love, pursuit of the ideals expressed by these three words is meaningless.

I hope the experience will be like this panel from the left-hand side of the Isenheim Altar entitled St Anthony’s visit to Saint Paul of Thebes. Just a couple of travelers sharing their experiences of the pilgrimage. “For often he would ask questions, and desired to listen to those who were present, and if any one said anything that was useful he confessed that he was profited.”

This post was originally published on April 27, 2010.

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