From The Blog

Mission Monthly – March 2008

“If man cannot go to the desert, then the desert can come to man.”

Carlo Carretto, The Desert in the City

About a year ago Dr. Bradley Nassif, professor of New Testament at North Park University in Chicago, came to UW-Madison to give a talk to the OCF entitled, “Desert Spirituality for the City.” Dr. Nassif spoke at length about deficiencies within the historical church which led to the rise of monasticism in Palestine and the deserts of Egypt. Instead of a more inspiring and practical instruction about the lives of those who fled to the desert, we heard about men who were simply escaping an “increasingly secularized Church” following the Edict of Milan and the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313. Historians have shown that early monasticism was indeed a movement stirred by (St.) Constantine’s Edict, but it cannot be underemphasized that the great monastic elders fled to the desert motivated even more so by an uncompromising intent to personally respond to the challenge of the Gospel!

To many today life in the desert, or monasticism, is as great a mystery as ever. If one is able get beyond the temptation to judge whether or not the “desert” is a place where the Gospel can actually be lived, the next temptation might be to think of the desert as a self-determined experience, subject to our own ambitions, as if God were simply a broker of “higher understanding.” The spirituality of modern man and the alluring philosophies of the New Age demonstrate this by making “spiritual experience” all about “me.” This human-centered attitude would be considered sacrilegious to the desert dwellers where God alone is the One Who is worshipped, adored, and served with complete self-abandonment! The desert dweller did not flee to the desert merely to escape nominalism or to find knowledge or self-fulfillment but rather, with humility, to die to himself, often times with ruthless and “violent” sacrifice (consider the great repentance of St. Mary of Egypt), “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This extreme humility is a vexing dilemma to the modern man of high (or low) self-esteem, where humility is either a foreign concept or a contrived self-depreciation. Humility in the desert is the complete opposite; it is God-centered; it is the experience of being loved, and in so being, learning to respond as an unworthy slave to a benevolent master who treats his slave as a friend. It is rooted in the deepest understanding of the words of our Lord, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me For what can a man give in return for his life?”(Mark 8:34-37).

What is it about the desert that provides the setting for such uncompromising courage? Some might say it’s the solitude and others the silence. Solitude and silence, but especially silence, also perplex modern man who not only craves distraction but also considers it normal: in our homes, in our cars, at our workplace, in the store, and now on our “person.” Where is our solitude? Where is our silence? Silencing the mind and heart, and the mouth, and time spent alone with God are critical to successful battle in the arena of spiritual warfare. For example, the saying “If a man cannot understand my silence he will never understand my words” might very well sum up how man is to seek God.

The journey of Great Lent is a journey to the desert; it is a journey leading each of us to grow in the challenge of our own uncompromising response to the Gospel, principally in preparation to enter into and celebrate the Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ but also for the whole of our lives. But since we cannot actually go to the desert the question remains, “How are we to bring the desert to us?” Maybe the answer lies in realizing that the desert in reality dwells silently in each of us, arousing a man’s conscience to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”(Mark 12:16). In this way maybe we can reduce the plurality of our lives; and with single-minded conviction arise moment by moment from our spiritual dullness, bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross and say, “Help me, Lord, today, to make a good beginning.”