Immediately after the powerful, transformative, theophanic moment of his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Holy Spirit into to the desert. There he is tempted for forty days — tempted with ease, with entitlement, and with earthly power. Ever since, the desert has held an odd place in the Christian imagination. On the one hand, it clearly wasn’t a ‘nice’ experience for Jesus, and indeed whenever we pray as Jesus taught us, we pray that God “lead us not into temptation.” On the other hand, Jesus’ forty days in the desert has become symbolic of the Arena, a place of spiritual warfare and testing one’s mettle. As such, for many Christians throughout the centuries, it has held a kind of romantic allure, and so the desert has been the prototype for both monasticism and the season of Lent.
There’s a common narrative these days that suggests that, when social and political prestige were offered to the Church, the Christians eagerly grasped it. But we have abundant evidence that this wasn’t entirely the case. While, yes, the Church did in many ways become quite quickly enmeshed with the imperial system, many Christians were deeply uncomfortable with the new situation. In fact, as Christianity’s social prestige increased, some Christians wondered if was even possible to be Christian in a context where they weren’t being persecuted. And some — thousands if the records can be trusted — responded by leaving the towns and cities to follow Jesus into the desert arena, away from the temptations of ease, privilege, and power.
Which is interesting, considering that these are the three things Jesus himself was tempted by in his own desert experience. The devil took three legitimate human needs — the physical need of food, the relational need of being able to rely on those you love, and the identity need of living out your true vocation — and twisted them: no longer legitimate needs, but expressions of neediness, of being overly concerned with food, of having to prove his status and his Father’s love, of grasping the false power of this world instead of receiving the true power of the Kingdom of God.
If we read the stories and sayings of the early Christian monastics, we see just this kind of twisting of ideas of need and neediness, receiving and clinging, openness and entitlement, right and wrong, holy and demonic. Life in the desert was far from an idyllic spiritual retreat, but was and is always a place filled with demons (however you choose to interpret that word). If Blaise Pascal’s remark that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” is true, the desert is the greatest test of all. For, free from the distractions of entertainment and society, we are faced with ourselves — in all our glory, all our weakness, all our pride, all our disappointment. As the old proverb says, wherever you go, there you are. There is, ultimately, no escape from ourselves. And it takes bravery and vulnerability to face this. Entering into the Arena of the Desert is not easy. But this is our mission in Lent, should we choose to accept it.
But we are not alone in the desert. We have the examples of Jesus, and of the brave spiritual warriors who have entered this spiritual arena before us, to help guide our paths. And so, I’d like to end today’s reflection with six simple pieces of advice taken from St. Anthony the Great, the most famous of the early desert Fathers and Mothers, that can help us navigate this Lenten season, and by extension, any desert season life throws our way:
- Know what you’re doing and why. In order to make any progress on a journey, we need to know where we want to go. The same is true in the life of faith. Without an intention in mind, our efforts will likely feel scattered and pointless. As St. Anthony put it, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron first decides what he is going to make of it … Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labour in vain” (Anthony, saying 35).
- Do the work set out before you. Once when St. Anthony was wondering how to be saved, God showed him a vision of himself doing his work, praying, resting, and getting back to work (Anthony, saying 1). The life of faith is showing up; often this simply means doing ‘the thing,’ whatever ‘the thing’ may be.
- Stay with it. This is such an important piece of wisdom for our scattered culture. We are so prone to flitting from idea to idea, practice to practice, place to place. But stability is a virtue — at least as much of one as spontaneity is. If we want to see any progress, we would be wise to choose a path and stick with it, until such time as we must choose a new one (Anthony, saying 3). Don’t move until you’re moved.
- Take responsibility for yourself. St. Anthony said that the great human work is “always to take responsibility for his own sins before God” (Anthony, saying 4). Similarly, when a man asked him to pray for him, St. Anthony replied that there was nothing he could do for him if he wasn’t willing to pray for himself (Anthony, saying 16). This isn’t a “God helps those who help themselves” idea, but rather the simple truth that we can’t hand off responsibility for our own life to others. We need to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we are and take responsibility for what we do and who we choose to become.
- Keep your eye on your own plate. No one’s journey is your journey; and your journey is the only one you need to worry about (Anthony, Saying 2.) Not only is this a reminder not to judge others for what they are doing, but it’s also a reminder that there are many paths up a mountain. St. Anthony was once shown a vision of a man who was his equal in faithfulness; far from a desert ascetic who wrestled demons in the night, this man was a city doctor who cared for the sick and said his prayers (Anthony, saying 25). Just because someone else’s path is different from yours doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
- Remember that it’s all about love (Anthony, saying 32). As Jesus taught, the whole Law can be summarized as love of God and love of neighbour. As St. Paul taught, nothing we do matters if we do not love. So does St. Anthony tell us that, while the fear of God may be the beginning of all wisdom, the love of God is its end.
This is the ancient wisdom of the desert. And it’s solid wisdom for us today.