The Temptation: A Gospel Play for Lent’s First Sunday

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

There are many ways to tell and experience our sacred stories. Sometimes those ancient texts cry out for the theatrical midrash of dramatized performance. This liturgical play was first performed as the gospel “reading” on the First Sunday of Lent, 1997, in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Washington.

The allusions to other biblical stories (Exodus, Peter’s rebuke, Gethsemane) in this account reflects the gospel’s own intertextuality: framing Jesus’ wilderness story as a redo of his ancestors’ flawed pilgrimage. This time around, Jesus would get it right, trusting God where his desert predecessors had doubted and rebelled.

Everyone in the congregation was given two stones to strike together as “Satan’s Theme” before each temptation. The choir functioned as the offstage chorus.

 

Fade in environmental AUDIO of desert sounds. JESUS enters, attentive to what is around him in this desert place. At center stage, facing out, he takes a deep breath and assumes a posture of prayer. .

CHORUS (offstage)

You are my beloved child. This day have I begotten you.

The people click stones together as SATAN enters to stand near Jesus.
Satan signals for silence.

SATAN (pointing to a cairn of stones):

If you really are God’s beloved child, command these stones to turn into bread.

Jesus contemplates the stones as a CRUCIFER enters, bearing a cross made out of two crossed sticks. An apple is suspended from each end of the crossarm. ADAM and EVE enter. They approach the fruit curiously but hesitate to pluck it.

SATAN

Go ahead. Eat. It won’t kill you. Just one bite, and you’ll be like God.
You’ll know everything.

They each take an apple and bite into it. The taste is bitter. They look at their apples in disgust, then drop them and look around anxiously, as if suddenly aware of being in a more dangerous world. They back away from the “tree,” then turn and run away. The crucifer exits and THREE ISRAELITES enter.

FIRST ISRAELITE

After God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, we wandered for so many years in the wilderness. The desert was hard and bitter, and despite everything God had done for us, we began to complain.

SECOND ISRAELITE

It was crazy to come out here. No food, no water, nothing but stones and thorns.
What were we thinking?

THIRD ISRAELITE

Milk and honey, man. Freedom. The Promised Land . . .  What a joke.
We should have stayed in Egypt. I can’t stop thinking about those fleshpots.

CHORUS (as Israelites exit)

They tested God in their hearts, demanding food for their craving.
They railed against God and said,
“Can God make a feast even in this wilderness?
“Yes, God struck rock and water gushed out,
but can God provide bread and meat to feed us?”
Hearing this, God’s anger was kindled,
for the people had no faith;
they did not trust God’s power to save.  [Psalm 78:18-22]

SATAN

If you are the Christ, no use pretending to be like everybody else.
Don’t be too proud to use your power. People expect it. They need it.
They don’t want a savior who’s weak like them, believe me.
Come on! Let’s see what you’re made of. Turn these stones into bread.

JESUS

Bread is a gift from God — and the work of many hands.
A person who needs nothing from anyone––ends up all alone.
I accept the lesson that hunger teaches.

SATAN

Well, if you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to keep your strength up.

JESUS

As long as anyone is hungry, I will be hungry.

SATAN (offering Jesus a stone)

Take. Eat.

JESUS (taking the stone)

 Human beings do not live by bread alone…
 (He puts the stone on the altar)
.… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The people click stones together. Satan produces a ladder, and gets Jesus to climb it.
Satan then signals for silence.

SATAN

If you are the Christ, throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple.
For it is written, “God will command the angels to protect you;
they will bear you up in their arms, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

JESUS

I will live without protection.
Where I’m going, angels can’t help.

PETER enters from the back of the congregation, making his way quickly to the ladder.

PETER

Let me through! Let me through!…
(reaching the foot of the ladder)
Rabbi! No! God forbid anything should happen to you.
You’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere safe.

JESUS (looking down at Peter)

Get behind me, Satan! You’re blocking my way!
You don’t see the way God sees.

Peter continues to look up at Jesus for a few moments, then he drops his head and exits slowly, disconsolate, as Satan addresses Jesus.

SATAN

You know you’re headed for a fall, Jesus.
Aren’t you curious whether God’s going to catch you?
Come on! A little test flight — just to make sure. Jump…

Jesus lets go of the ladder, spreading arms wide as if about to fly — or be crucified.

CONGREGATION (led by Satan)

Jump!…Jump!…Jump!…. (continuing ad lib)

Jesus, as if awakened from a trance, drops his arms suddenly to clutch the ladder before he falls into space. The people stop shouting. Jesus descends carefully to the ground, and stands face to face with Satan.

JESUS

The Scriptures say, “Do not test God. Trust God.”

Jesus turns away from Satan to pray. The people click stones until Satan signals for silence. The ISRAELITES enter, all looking at their smartphones.

 FIRST ISRAELITE

Now when Moses did not come down from the mountain of God, the Israelites began to feel abandoned. So they melted down all their gold, and made themselves a new god, a god who would never leave them, a god who would always take care of them.

 SATAN

Come on, Jesus. I’m not your enemy. I know what people want. I know what you want.
I can give you anything you desire. Look.

Satan directs Jesus’ attention to a large screen displaying a montage of television commercials promising endless happiness and pleasure. The Israelites kneel before the images. Jesus glances at the screen, then turns his back to it. When the montage concludes, the Israelites stand up, pull out smartphones and exit, transfixed by their devices.  

SATAN

Jesus, how long are you going to stick with that two-bit operation of your father’s? Long hours, low pay, miserable working conditions, declining market share, insufficient capital. Am I right or am I right? It’s a dead end, pal. That’s not for you. You’re good, and you know it. You come and work for me, and I’ll guarantee you maximum exposure – worldwide markets, talk show, website, golden parachute… You can write your own ticket. Think of the good you could do with that kind of power. It’ll be fantastic, believe me.

Satan opens a bottle of champagne, fills a flute and offers it to Jesus.

Just say yes, and we’ll drink to your success.

An ANGEL enters holding a communion chalice. Jesus looks at the two different drinks before him, then turns to Satan and pushes aside his extended arm holding the flute.

JESUS

No. I serve God––and no one else!”

SATAN

Satan looks at Jesus a moment, then shrugs and drinks the champagne himself.

 We’ll meet again.

He exits. Jesus approaches the angel.

JESUS

Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

The angel offers the chalice. Jesus accepts it, drinks deeply, then places it on the altar, kneeling before it. Then the angel gently brings Jesus to his feet and, with a comforting arm around his shoulders, leads him out. Desert sounds slowly fade out.

 

 

Related Posts

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

The Desert and the Flood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is holiness a Lenten obligation?

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

In the liturgical rite for Ash Wednesday, the priest stands up before the people and invites them “to the observance of a holy Lent.” It is a solemn and noble custom. But is it a serious proposal? And if so, what is actually being asked of the faithful?

When people hear the word “holy,” they often think “devout” or “virtuous,” but qodesh, the word for holiness in the Hebrew Bible, is not a moral or behavioral term. It means “apartness,” conveying an inherent, critical difference between what is holy and what is not.

The word itself is set apart. Unlike other divine attributes like power, justice and love, holiness has no analogue in the everyday life of Israel. It doesn’t refer to a common experience and then say God is like that. Instead, it evokes the one quality of God which is unlike anything we know.

In ancient Judaism, holiness meant the radical otherness of God, the Holy One. The divine presence is not to be approached easily or casually, either by our bodies or by our language. God dwells in a sacred zone which is highly charged, difficult and risky to enter.

Israel’s worship practices grew up around this strict sense of separation. At the center of cultic life was a holy of holies, a space set apart from contamination by the world. And only priests, who were themselves set apart and highly trained in the intricacies of access, were allowed to have contact with this sacred center. There was a sense that if the sphere of holiness were to be contaminated or carelessly regarded, the presence of the Holy One might withdraw from Israel, and that would be disastrous.

Leviticus, not a book I spend a lot of time with, contains a long section known as the Holiness Code because of its repeated use of holy and holiness, as well as related terms like sanctify, hallow, consecrate, dedicate, and sacred. It is filled with detailed prescriptions ranging from ritual practice to sexual behavior. Many of these seem archaic and largely inapplicable today. But may we still find something valid in the impulse to preserve the “holy” from profanation or inattention?

The sacred is made present by the attention we give to it. For example, if you come to a labyrinth occupying an open space, do you just walk straight across it, or do you go around it, acknowledging it as a space set apart for prayerful activity? Or does it only become holy space when it is put to its intended use, rather than just lying there as a decorative floor pattern?

I once led a weeklong family retreat for a Nevada parish on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. There was a beautiful stone church, with a large window looking across the water to the high peaks of the Sierra mountains. The space around the altar was large enough to hold all of us, so we did most of our worship there, in the intimacy of a circle.

I asked everyone to do two things each time they came inside the altar rails. One was to remove their shoes, like Moses at the Burning Bush. The other was to perform an action of their choice to mark their entrance into holy space: they could lift their hands in prayer, bow, genuflect, cross themselves, kiss the altar, or prostrate themselves on the floor. Most of the children, being the enthusiastically embodied creatures they are, opted for prostration! The effect of these physical observances was tangible. The attention we gave changed the quality of being there. It became for us holy ground.

But what Leviticus is after, and what a holy Lent is about, is more than the quality of a space or the attention we pay to it. Holiness is meant to be something contagious, something which gets inside us and changes us forever.

You shall be holy, for I your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2). God is not content to limit holiness to Godself. God’s people are invited to be holy as well. Not just our sanctuaries, but ourselves, are made to be set apart, consecrated, sanctified, hallowed. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann has called this the “obligation tradition,” where “the purpose of Israel’s life is to host the holiness of Yahweh.”[i]

As biblical people gradually figured out, hosting divine holiness means more than maintaining ritual purity or devotional piety. It means embodying justice and peace as well, uncontaminated by the dehumanizing, violent and oppressive practices of the dominant culture. Such holiness requires the consecration and dedication of every aspect of life to the will and purpose of God.

Leviticus 19:9-18 provides some excellent guidelines for our own time:

  • Don’t keep all your food for yourselves
  • Remember the poor and the immigrant
  • Don’t steal, lie, or defraud one another
  • Don’t exploit your workers
  • Be mindful of those with special needs
  • Be fair and just in your dealings with others
  • Don’t slander, seek revenge, or carry grudges
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

The nice thing about such a list is that these are all things we can do. They are not perfections only achievable in a messianic future. We can perform them right now. Jesus offered a similar list. Is somebody hungry? Feed them. Is anybody thirsty? Get them some water. And if curing the sick or setting the prisoner free seems beyond you, surely you can at least visit them. This is not impossible stuff.

Holiness, an attribute of God, becomes for us a practice.
Not something we are, but something we do.

Of course the specific obligations of holiness are not always clear. It is one thing to separate yourself by going to the desert, the monastery, or a countercultural refuge. It is quite another to live in contemporary society with its inevitable complicity in the evils by which the system maintains itself: militarism, consumerism, economic injustice and violence against the planet. How do we say no to the evil and yes to the good in a world of such complex interdependence?

And yet, Scripture remains insistent that we continue to strive for sanctification, dedicating our lives to God and separating ourselves from whatever is not of God.

  • God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless, full of love (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24)
  • Surrender your bodies to righteousness in order to create a holy life (Romans 6:19)

Surrender. Is this too much to ask? Is a holy life too much to ask? Does it set the bar so high that we just abandon the field to an elite corps of ethical heroes: the few, the proud, the saints?

Even worse, does a religion of obligation veer us toward “works righteousness,” overestimating our powers and denying the need for grace? Well, even Calvin admitted the possibility of making progress in personal goodness. He echoed the purity language of Leviticus when he wrote:

Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord, we should make it our endeavor to show forth the glory of God, and guard against being profaned by the defilement of sin. Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown, we should earnestly strive to keep them pure and uncorrupted against the day of the Lord.[ii]

But where do we begin? Thomas Aquinas outlined three stages of holiness: First, distance yourself from sin and wrong inclinations (holiness as an act of separation, turning your back on sin and turning toward God). Second, work on cultivating the virtues in your life (holiness as a daily practice). Finally, rest in loving union with God (holiness as communion with the Holy One).

This triptych of holiness is echoed in my favorite collect in the service of Morning Prayer:

  • drive far from us all wrong desires (separation)
  • incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace (practice)
  • that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks (communion)

Or to put this in the simplest terms:

  • What do I need to let go of?
  • What do I need to acquire and cultivate?
  • In whose reality do I want to dwell?

It’s not about effort, of course. Sola fide, sola gratia, soli Deo. Only faith, only grace, only God. As Augustine knew, “When God crowns our merits, God crowns nothing but God’s own gifts.”[iii]

And it’s never done, this holiness business. It’s an open-ended process of continual striving. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.”[iv] In other words, holiness isn’t something we achieve, it’s a commitment to growth.

And as an old eucharistic prayer suggests, the time to start is now:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
our selves, our souls and bodies,
to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.[v]

What if, every day during Lent, each of us were to make such a prayer?
Here I offer and present to you, O God, my ________.

Just fill in the blank with whatever the time and place requires.

 

Related posts

Grace me guide

Heart work and heaven work

 

 

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 428

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

[iii] Augustine, Epistle 154, 5.16

[iv] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 10

[v] Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer (1549), based on Romans 12:1, in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336.

Ash Wednesday: A time for self-compassion

 

Alleluia ashes 2sm

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

– Etty Hillesum[i]

 

Hillesum’s evocative image expresses the duality of the Lenten season. On the one hand, God is not the end product of spiritual attainment, something brought closer through our own efforts. The deep well of divinity is already present within us, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”[ii] We don’t have to go somewhere else to find it. Lent is a time to tune in, go deep, and pay heightened attention to the Presence we often miss.

At the same time, our awareness of – and relationship with – this Presence may be hindered or obstructed by any number of things, requiring some real digging on our part. The trouble is, that digging can quickly become a self-improvement project, with Lent’s success judged by the quality and success of our efforts. We imagine a more spiritually heroic self, and strive to make it come true.

The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, who fled the corruption and distractions of their culture to seek a holier life in the wastelands beyond Empire, might seem at first glance to be overflowing with heroic aspiration. A typical regimen would be to “get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[iii]

Such rigorous spiritual practice wasn’t for the halfhearted. But it risked the competitive sin of pride. Paul of Pherme, for instance, undertook the project of “continual prayer” – 300 prayers per day, keeping count with a pile of 300 pebbles in his lap. After each prayer, he tossed away one pebble. But he was crestfallen to learn of a certain woman who had been saying 700 prayers per day for thirty years! He would never catch up. Another desert father, Macarius the Alexandrian, warned Paul that his spiritual life lacked both balance and humility. But Macarius was no moderate. He once did penance for swatting a mosquito by moving to a swamp to endure six months of insect bites, without ever raising a hand in defense.[iv]

Thankfully, the extremists were not the norm. More prevalent was a spirit of deep humility about one’s capacities. John Climacus was a seventh-century monk at Mt. Sinai. His image of the spiritual life as a “Ladder of Divine Ascent” was later pictured in a famous twelfth-century icon.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

If you have ever climbed a very tall ladder, or done any rock-climbing, you know the degree of both effort and risk involved. John’s image makes it very clear that the spiritual life is strenuous and challenging. “We need to exercise ourselves greatly,” he wrote, “to lay upon ourselves many hidden labors after a life of negligence.” But then he said,

Be of good heart. If the passions lord it over us and we are weak, let us with great confidence offer to Christ our spiritual weakness and our impotence . . . He will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility.[v]

So we don’t have to be heroes after all. What a relief! Humility, not heroism, is the way up the ladder. As the Rule of Saint Benedict teaches us, “by trying to climb we descend, and by humility we ascend.”[vi] That’s why Ash Wednesday strikes just the right note for the beginning of Lent. It brings us down to earth as creatures of ashes, dust and mud, undermining any pretensions of Promethean heroism. The Lenten journey is come-as-you-are.

Mary Oliver puts this perfectly: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[vii] Or as Simone Weil suggested, self-compassion means to “accept what one is, at a given moment, as a fact – even one’s shame.”

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen was favored in the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Oympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only yourself, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[viii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

As Mary Gauthier sings so beautifully, we could all use a little mercy now.

 

 

Related posts

George Herbert: Heart work and heaven work

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), August 25, 1941 (two years before she died in Auschwitz)

[ii] St. Augustine, Confessions III.

[iii] The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200

[iv] ibid., 288

[v] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1st Step, 17, in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1993), 152

[vi] ibid., 156 (Rule of St. Benedict VII)

[vii] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110

[viii] From a talk given by David Whyte in the 1990’s

 

Via Negativa: A Lenten worship installation

"Desert Words" from "Via Negativa" worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“Desert Words” from “Via Negativa” worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“The trouble with going to the desert is that you risk meeting God there.” These words of a French monk, which I heard decades ago in a documentary on the Little Brothers of Jesus, have haunted me ever since. Anyone who has spent serious time in the desert knows that the monk was right. Flee the culture’s house of mirrors for the counter-world of rocks and sand, silence and emptiness, and like Elijah you too may hear the “voice of thin silence.” You may meet the necessary Other.

I wrote these words in an introduction to my Lenten worship installation Via Negativa, an experiential journey through a symbolic desert. A worship installation is more like an art gallery than the theater model of traditional Western liturgy. Instead of finding a seat and remaining there (except for the Peace and Communion), you move around, follow your own path, pay attention at your own pace, linger where something in particular calls to you. An installation also resembles the labyrinth in being a mixture of both solitude and community. You do it in your own way, yet always aware that you make the journey in the company of fellow pilgrims.

The installation introduction goes on to say:

In this installation, you are invited to make your own exodus out of the ordinary into a desert made of signs, symbols and experiences. There is no path. You wander as you will, or as the Spirit wills, though the Burning Bush is best deferred until you have spent some time here.

There is a multitude of texts: like grains of sand they are too vast to consume in their entirety. But somewhere amid those endless texts are words that may whisper a message just for you. Open a book at random. Consider the many juxtapositions of word and image scattered around the space. Read the “the shifting language of sand, traces, and mirage.”[i] Inhabit “a fragile tent of words erected in the desert” where we are “struck with infinity and the letter.”[ii]

There are also images, sounds, places to linger, practices to enact. It is better not to hurry. There is no time in the desert, only space. Wander. Explore. Abide. Pay attention. Take off your shoes. You stand on holy ground.      

The installation occupies three rooms. In the first room, there are images and texts representing the “Egypt” which need to be left behind – the personal and cultural distractions, distortions, oppressions and addictions which mar or obscure the goodness of creation and the Imago Dei within us all. A monitor shows a video loop of the Exodus story from The Electronic Campfire, a video I produced of creatively told biblical stories from the Easter Vigil.

The second room contains a small tent where you can listen to a recording of sayings and stories of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, playing softly from a small portable speaker. There are printed collections of these texts available as well. Sitting on a Persian carpet inside the tent, you may linger to hear and read the wisdom of those ancient spiritual explorers. A sign outside the entrance displays a key text from that tradition: Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

The third room represents the desert itself, that indeterminate space free of human constructs, which for millennia has drawn the hungry of spirit. As God tells Hosea, “I will lure her into the wilderness; there I will speak tenderly to her heart.”[iii] The video artist Bill Viola describes the value of this alternate reality as well as any:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.”[iv]

At the entrance to the third room, a sign invites you to take off your shoes before entering the “desert.” Once inside, you begin to read, see, hear, touch, smell, taste and do:

  • Torn fragments of a large desert map scattered across the entry floor, with a sign: “Throw away your maps.”
  • Dozens of magazine photographs and postcard images of the desert, each accompanied by a text related to desert spirituality. These numerous pairings of image and text are designed to provoke endless reflection.
  • Various books and guides on desert natural history, geology and spirituality.
  • Large signs hanging from the ceiling proclaiming key themes of desert spirituality, such as T. S. Eliot’s “Teach us to sit still, even among these rocks.”[v]
"Via Negativa" installation by Jim Friedrich

“Via Negativa” installation by Jim Friedrich

  • At different locations, three video monitors:
    • A slide show of desert wildflowers
    • A montage of desert film footage (time lapse of cloud shadows moving across dry landscapes, dreamlike images of humans and animals on sand dunes, the Temptation scene from Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew, and a desert father atop his 40-foot pillar in Luis Buñuel’sSimon of the Desert).
    • A live image of whoever is standing in front of the monitor, to which this text is attached: You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous.[vi]
  • A large rectangle of sand containing over 70 words naming dimensions of the desert quest (deprivation, emptiness, hunger, listening, negation, repentance, solitude, tears, trial, unknowing, waiting, etc.) Each word seems on the verge of erasure by the enveloping sand.
"Desert Words" from "Via Negativa" worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“Desert Words” from “Via Negativa” worship installation by Jim Friedrich

  • A pile of rocks contains a couple of iPods. You can sit among the rocks, put on headphones, and listen to a trilogy of desert songs by the great Bob Franke: “Walking in the Wilderness,” “Israelite” (“nobody suffers here another night”), and “Holy Ground” (“on holy ground you better not play no tourist”)[vii]. Or you may be swept into trance by Steve Reich’s “Desert Music.”
  • A woven basket with “manna” (fry bread), water trickling from a pile of rocks with cups for drinking, and a pillar of fire (Paschal Candle), each with accompanying biblical texts.
  • The fragrance of sage incense and the recorded sounds of desert birds and insects.
  • Large medieval images of Jesus confronting Satan, hanging above a small table where a small New Testament is opened to the Temptation story. Also on the table: a plate with a bread-shaped stone, and a chalice filled with sand. Another text asks, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?”[viii]
  • Nearby, a ladder holds referents to Mt. Sinai on every rung: a book of Sinai photographs, incense grains from St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Sinai, a collection of sayings by St. Nilus of Sinai, a reproduction of the Sinai monastery’s famous icon, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” and – at the top of the ladder – the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and English.
  • Finally, the Burning Bush, reached by following a winding path of stones past a “veil” with the single word, Absence, on the front. When you reach the other side of the veil, the single word is Presence. set above an altar with a large photograph of a burning bush (Richard Misrach’s “Desert Fire #81”), illumined by many candles.
"Burning Bush" - Richard Misrach's "Desert Fire #81" in "Via Negativa" worship installation

“Burning Bush” – Richard Misrach’s “Desert Fire #81” in “Via Negativa” worship installation

Of course, there is no substitute for doing the real desert in real time. I have never forgotten a solitary Lenten retreat years ago in California’s eastern Mojave – sleeping on sand dunes beneath the moon, listening to silence, trying (unsuccessfully) to pray the entire Psalter in one sitting in the cool of a remote cave. But you can’t become a desert father in a few days. My mind wandered. I failed to find the burning bush.

And yet my brief immersion in desert’s “no-where” lodged itself deep within me. The Via Negativa installation is an attempt to give it symbolic form. Like any liturgy, it compresses a universe of meaning into the space of an hour or two, providing mere glimpses and fragments. But perhaps – like any liturgy – it can plant a few seeds for God to cultivate in the fullness of time.

                                                                           

[i] David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) 181

[ii] Jacques Derrida, q. in Jasper, p. 161

[iii] Hosea 2:14

[iv] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54

[v] “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002) 95

[vi] Edmond Jabés, q. in Jasper, p. 2

[vii] The first two songs are on Franke’s powerful Desert Questions album. “Holy Ground” is on In This Night.

[viii] Psalm 78:19

The Desert and the Flood (Homily for Lent 1)

Death Valley flowers

Today’s Old Testament reading takes us to the end of the great Flood in Genesis. Many people have trouble with this story, because they read it as a tale of crime and punishment, with an angry father god who will get us if we don’t behave.

But the rest of Scripture won’t let us read it that way. The rest of Scripture, including the ending of the Flood story itself – the rainbow and the promise – shows us the face of God as the face of love. God doesn’t want to kill us. God wants to make a covenant with us. God wants to marry us.

So what is the Flood story really about? It actually generates a multitude of meanings, but one of the central ones has to do with violence. Genesis says that God looked upon the earth and saw that it was filled with violence. Sound familiar?

Violence is what happens when we put ourselves in the center instead of God, and try to make the world over in our own image. We are unable to honor or even see the existence of other beings as independent of our own desire. We lose all curiosity for anything outside ourselves.

Violence is intolerance of difference: other selves, other perspectives, other cultures are treated as obstacles to our desire, and must be made either to serve us or be swept away. This intolerance of difference, of otherness, may be seen in the rhetoric of terrorists, as well as its mirror image in the anti-Muslim ranting of certain American politicians. It is may also be seen in the recent outbreaks of overt racism in this country. Fear and hatred of those not like us has become far too common.

Such boundless self-assertion, says the Bible, is the foundational violence that threatens to swallow the whole earth. The Flood is not a punishment imposed from the outside; it is what we have made of ourselves.

When we are hostile to those who are not like us, who are not useful in the boundless expansion of our swelling desire, we destroy the balances and boundaries of which the world is made. You can see this violence in relationships, on the freeway, in the crucifixion of Nature, in the current phenomenon of endless war. If we let creation’s harmonious balance be smashed by human violence, we will all be washed away, the innocent and guilty alike. Not even the billionaire profiteers will be able to hide on that day.

A world drowning in its own violence.
Is this an ancient myth, or the daily news?

But the Flood story has a surprise ending. Instead of destruction, new possibility. Instead of anger, love. Instead of violence, reverence for all beings with whom we share the planet. God tears up all the sad old tragedy scripts and gives us a comedy instead. God invites us to join in the re-imagination of the world. God writes a new story in our hearts.

This is why the Epistle of Peter links the waters of the Flood to the waters of baptism. Both are the ending of an old story and the birthing of a new one. When our old selves drown in the depths of the font, we are reborn in Christ. No longer I, but Christ in me, as Paul says.

But before Christ could become our future, he first had to become himself. We are all tempted to live some other life than our own, to wear other people’s faces instead of becoming what God made us to be. Jesus was no exception. He could have lived some other life. Tradition says that he was tempted to dominate others and to escape the Way of the Cross.

“You don’t have to suffer,” Satan told him. “Not you. You were born King of the World. Think of the good you could do with all that power.”

But if Jesus had not lived with the poor and the outcast, if he had spent his time making rich and powerful friends, would he have been Jesus? If he had led a violent uprising to overthrow Roman tyranny, if he had devoted his life to reforming the religious establishment, would he have been Jesus? If he had turned stones into bread, or not risen from the dead, would he have been Jesus?

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
writes poet William Stafford.[i]
Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

Well, what Jesus did was his life. So, we may wonder, how do we do our own lives? To answer that question, we must go, with Jesus, to the desert.

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

Only in the desert is the silence deep enough for you to hear the whisper of your innermost heart. And what is your heart trying to tell you? Listen. Listen to your heart.

As Parker Palmer says:

“Before you tell your lives what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you … Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about… Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…”[ii]

We’re always making up stories about ourselves. Sometimes we’re heroes, sometimes we’re victims. But all of these stories are fictions that make us deaf and blind to what our life is actually trying to tell us. What are the stories that you need to let go of in order to let your life speak? If you are going to give up anything this Lent, give up those tired old stories about yourself. They are no longer true.

When we are baptized, we die to our old fictions; we let go of the old stories by which we try to direct our lives. That’s why the Flood story is one of the great images for baptism. There are all those people of Noah’s time clinging to their own fictions, sinking down under the weight of their false identities just as we ourselves sink under the weight of our own fictions.

And when in baptism we are freed from the burden of our false selves, we rise, newly buoyant, to the surface; we are pulled out of the water and given a new story, a new name, which is our true self, our true life, which has been wanting to speak to us all these years.

That is the work we have come to do, as we begin our long Lenten journey, as we step out into that desert where every fiction will be stripped away. At first it will feel like loss, like too much giving up. We may even want to turn around and quit, like the Israelites who complained in the midst of their own desert journey: Let’s go back! It wasn’t so bad, being slaves in Egypt!

But with God’s help, we will keep going, deeper and deeper into that desert, determined to save the only life we can save,[iii] and there will come a day, some 40 days hence, when we will reach the other side. And there we will hear a voice, a voice that calls us each by name.

Come to the waters, the voice will say.
Come to the life-giving pool of the baptismal font.
Come to the Easter waters, and dive in.
Wash yourselves clean of the old fictions, the tired stories,
and rise again out of the watery depths,
newborn, with a new name,
a name which is: Not I but Christ in me.
And this new name, this new self,
is what our life has been trying to tell us all these years.

As Derek Walcott describes it,

The day will come when with elation you will greet
yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome
Saying, “Sit here, eat, you will love again
the stranger who was yourself …
the stranger who has loved you all your life …
who knows you by heart.[iv]

The desert is wide, the journey long, but keep on keeping on, because it will lead you, step by step, into the heart of the Beloved who has loved you all your life, who knows you by heart.

And when we finally draw near the end of our Lenten journey, everything that the desert is about, everything the Christian faith is about, everything our very lives are about, will be intensified and distilled in the incomparable passage from death to life which we call the Paschal Mystery: the life-giving mystery experienced both ritually and personally in the Great Three Days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

Right now, in these first lean and hungry days of the Lenten desert, the transformative joy of the Easter feast may seem unimaginable. But beyond the hunger and thirst, beyond the trials and temptations, the doubts and the stumbles, beyond even the faded Hosannas and the terrible shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!,” there will rise the jubilant Alleluias of the Easter Vigil, breaking at last the stony silence of defeat and death.

The great journey begins here. Now.
And when it’s over,
you will be somebody else:
Not I, but Christ in me.

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me”

[ii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 2000) 3-4

[iii] Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

[iv] Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”

Solitude (Part 2)

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

This evening, an inner light shone up from within, and a voice called, “Come to me, trust me, depend on me. You cannot do it yourself. You’re trapped where you are, and your struggling efforts to free yourself enmesh you more deeply. Come to me.” “Yes,” I answered, and surrendered. Yet my pride was soon fighting back. This is the work I came to do.

— Robert Kull[i]

In Solitude (Part 1), I described one man’s experiment of living in total solitude for one year on a remote island in southern Chile. On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Christian retreat from habitual living and pesky attachments, it seems a good time to ask what Robert Kull’s experience might teach us about spending time in the “desert.” What happens out there? Will it change us?

Kull has few pretensions about being a hero. One of his first journal entries expresses a feeling of utter weakness and vulnerability: “Alone. A tiny solitary speck completely vulnerable in the face of an infinite universe intent on my annihilation.”[ii] Over the next twelve months he suffers frequent bouts of anxiety, loneliness, rage, depression, emptiness, grief, and self-doubt – all those demons that have nowhere to hide without the constructions and distractions of the social world. “What is this core I’m knotted around?” he wrote after three months. “What painful wound am I protecting? I want nothing to touch me there – but rain, wind, cold, and Cat [his feline companion] keep battering the walls I build.”[iii]

The solution, as he must learn over and over, is not to fight and overcome his human condition, but to surrender: “My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than individual ego.”[iv]

He was never entirely free of the hero’s quest to attain a goal, to find the Holy Grail of a perfected self. “It’s painful to feel I’m failing,” he wrote halfway through his year.[v] He worried he was just going round in circles instead of making real progress. He felt like Sisyphus. But isn’t that how the soul dance goes? It’s not the attainment of a final cure for what ails us, but a lifelong process of continual care and self-compassion. As the monks say when asked what they do all day in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up.” Or as a Zen patriarch once put it, “One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person.”[vi]

We should rejoice that enlightenment and foolishness (or grace and sin) remain so intertwined in this life. It reminds us that grace is a gift, not a possession. It frees us from pretension and pride, and makes us ever grateful.

In his last days on the island, Kull wrote:

I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I believe there have been moments. If so, enlightenment is not something I can get. It’s the process of abandoning myself to the world. There have been times when, like a clear bell, I could hear the sound of one hand clapping and feel the sacredness of everything. It’s the sound of the world, once I remember in my heart that there is truly nothing to get. What I’m looking for, I already have.[vii]

In his year of solitude, Kull experienced many moments of enlightenment to go with the many foolish ones. Some of his best thoughts are framed in the language of his adopted Buddhist tradition, but his struggles with self-will and ego are resonant with Christian spirituality as well. “Surrendering the ego to Something Greater is at the heart of spiritual practice, and the process is endlessly subtle and challenging.”[viii]

Kull’s wilderness year did not fix him. He returned home still a work-in-progress. But he had definitely been changed by his sojourn in solitude, and the meaning of that change will only be revealed over the rest of his life. As I often heard when I walked the Camino de Santiago, “when you reach Santiago, your real Camino begins.”

Kull’s relationship with the wind is my favorite example of his spiritual growth. When he began his year in the southern summer, the winds were intense and seemingly endless. If you have ever camped in high winds, you know how wearying, even terrifying, a continuous barrage of turbulence can be. For a long time, Kull regarded the wind as his enemy – an attacking, malevolent force trying to break him down. But as he gradually learned to surrender to the world, to accept the way things are and not take them personally, he recognized the wind had been his teacher all along. In his final weeks on the island, he began to fly a kite on calmer days. The wind had become his playful companion.

For those of us beginning our Lenten retreat today, Kull’s valuable experiment in solitude has much to teach us. The subtractions of retreat – doing without, giving up, setting aside, getting away – can free us from the clutter, noise, addictions, distractions and deceptions that drown out the still, small voice calling our name in every moment. And the unaccustomed hardships of the “desert” – severity, deprivation, emptiness, loneliness, demons – can break the spell of self-sufficiency, returning us to the honest condition of primal need. Few of us will spend a year on a Patagonian island, but a faithful keeping of Lent may take us to a place of similar learning and growth.

Perhaps the best thing we can take from Kull’s journals is the gift of self-compassion. We don’t have to be heroes. We don’t have to be cured. We don’t have to pretend at spiritual competence or perfection. We don’t even have to be “good,” as Mary Oliver reminds us. We “only have to let the soft animal of [our] body / love what it loves.”[ix] And every now and then, as Kull duly notes, we get it: “Finally I am – if only briefly – the flowing All.”[x]

Tonight I will kneel in church for the imposition of ashes. A priest will trace a charred cross on my forehead and say to me, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What a relief! Only dust, neither hero nor angel. And yet, is not dust the very material God selected to fabricate a physical image of the divine self? This dust may yet shine with glory not its own.

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’ry where.[xi]

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) 98

[ii] Kull, 4

[iii] Kull, 70

[iv] Kull, 47

[v] Kull, 141

[vi] Hui Neng, Sixth Zen Patriarch, q. in Kull, 288

[vii] Kull, 293

[viii] Kull, 271

[ix] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) 110

[x] Kull, 283 (italics mine)

[xi] George Herbert, “The Temper”