Call to the Wilderness
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mat. 4:1).
Why into the wilderness?
In central Greece there is a place called Meteora, known for boulders that jut up into the air like natural columns or skyscrapers. At the peak of these columns, built into stone, are ancient Orthodox monasteries. One morning, after camping in the Meteora valley, I started my ascent up towards the monasteries. The sun was just beginning to rise when I heard a sound I will never forget. Nuns were chanting, high overhead a hundred or two feet up. It was haunting, like the voice of angels making their morning praise.
Similar monasteries are built all over the world. Off the coast of Ireland are the rocky islands covered in stone cells, shaped like beehives. The Celtic saints preferred these rugged, storm-beaten hills above everything else. Throughout Egypt and the Middle East are more monasteries, carved into the desert, as far away from human traffic and commerce as possible.
What is it about the wilderness? Why do the holy people seek out such remote places? What is so attractive about silence and stillness? They go into the desert to find what prophet Elijah found. He fled for his life into the mountains. Once there, an angel awoke him saying, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” On the mountain he encountered God, though not before the temptations. “A great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a still small voice” (I Kg. 19:11-12). He had to leave everything behind him before he could hear the voice of God. Even there in the desert, he had to endure still the chaos of wind, earthquake, and fire. Then, in utter silence he found God. In the demánah, the light, gentle whisper, he encountered paradise.
Jesus Christ too was lead into the wilderness. “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished”. Then the devil came. He tempted Christ three times. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread…If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down… Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mat. 4:1-11). The devil does not waste any time. He picks at the three weakest parts of humanity: gluttony, pride, and avarice.
Gluttony is not merely about over eating. It is about addiction to distractions. The other day, I was sitting at my desk, hungry, because I had forgotten my lunch. Sure enough, that same afternoon, someone had dropped off a box of cookies. I knew it would not satisfy me. I knew it would give me a stomachache. Yet, I also knew that for one minute, for those few bites, I could trick my hunger. Well, I ate them, and had a stomachache afterwards. Is this not what we do throughout our lives? We trick our hearts. The soul yearns for God, but we replace him with distractions that do not satisfy.
We substitute God with money, consumerism, and noise. Most of the time, the religious type has the most creative idols. We consume away our soul with busyness, judging, grumbling…there is no end to it. Our television shows, iPhones, and gadgets create an endless, self-perpetuating game of distractions, so that we can never be silent. God speaks in our hearts, but we are never still enough to hear.
What about pride and avarice? How often do we spend our lives choked up with our pride? C. S. Lewis said it clearly, “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…” When is pride in our lives? If we look at our relationships, whether at home, work, or church, we have to ask? Is it pride, plain and simple, which is getting in the way? Can the same be said of avarice or vainglory?
The wind, fire, and earthquake taunted Elijah, but he did not compromise. The world, the flesh, and the devil taunted Christ, but he was not moved. They tuned their hearts to the will of God. We have the same task.
“It was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).
In this passage, the word for captain is àrxigós in Greek. It means pioneer or forerunner. The explorers, Lewis and Clark, cleared a path to the West. They were the àrxigós of American expansion. In the same way, Jesus Christ is our spiritual pioneer. He is the àrxigós for the path of holiness. This means we have to follow Jesus in ever step that he took, even into the wilderness. We too must go into the desert. But how?
We cannot go out to the Judean desert, or the Sahara, or even the Texan prairie, not for any substantial time at least. Most of us cannot move up to a monastery on some remote boulder or island, or in a distant cave. We have jobs and obligations in a demanding world. Yet, we must go into the desert, right here in our daily routine.
A pastor (in Austen of all places) talks about our daily habits as a sort liturgy. Here is how she puts it: “Examining my daily liturgy as a liturgy – as something that both revealed and shaped what I love and worship – allowed me to realize that my daily practices were malforming me, making me less alive, less human…These small bits of our day are profoundly meaningful because they are the site of our worship. The crucible of our formation is in the monotony of our daily routines.” Is your life balanced? Have you become too busy to pray? Are your daily routines making you “less alive, less human”? It is in all the scattered moments through the day when we can encounter God.
You know what is wonderful about Lent? It is hard eating less of our favorite meals and watching fewer television shows. Yet, somehow it is always such a relief. It is exhausting being an addict. Our addictions feel like slave masters at times, whether they are addictions to food or drink, or to judging and grumbling. In Lent, we have the chance to step out of it all. Lent is our retreat into the wilderness. We get to shut it all off, and simply cherish God.