Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]

 

In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

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.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“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.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.

 

 

Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

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

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46

 

In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

 

Related post: No Place Like Home

 

[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.