by: Teresa B Pasquale on September 1st, 2012 | 5 Comments »
The Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity existed in a time in flux. The cultured society was now under the reign of Constantine who had legalized Christianity and taken the religion out of a space of persecution and into the mainstream. With that freedom came complication and often compromise–out of the shadows, now, Christianity had access to things like hierarchy, power, and wealth, for better and, most usually, for worse.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were persons who saw no way to keep the purity of faith inside the construct of a “civilized society.” They moved away from the cities, into the desert land of Egypt and formed a monastic culture based on the tenets they felt their religion was built on, and which they were seeing less and less of in the empire. Out of this alternate society and faith community came some of the most intimate and profound texts of Christianity–and some of the most unknown or forgotten.
It is hard to exist outside the walls of society and still contribute to it on a large scale–but sometimes big is not always better and profundity has value which fame can never quite capture.
Why am I bringing up a bunch of monastics from the third century A.D.? Because I see so many parallels and dangers inside our own form of empire and so many elements of faith corrupted by the need for polarized absolutes which allow no room for questions and definitely no space for grace. I find myself, for the first time in my life, having a particularly personal empathy for the plight of the desert monks and nuns. I can understand wanting to leave the center of civilization to keep one’s connection to faith, soul, and God.
I was in centering prayer last week with my close-knit group of (predominantly) ladies, most of whom are in their 60s and 70s, and in our post-meditation reflections politics came up. One woman in her early 80s said, “This is the first time in my adult life I have no idea how I am going to vote. All I can see are two well-educated men who seem like decent human beings tearing each other apart like kids on a playground. I am saddened and disappointed. I have no idea where we are going, but even more I feel the need to strengthen the tether between me and God. It is the only thing that can keep me grounded in this storm.”
We are in a storm. We are in the center of an empire struggling to maintain its soul, and its grounding in the storm. And, again, I find myself reflecting on the desert fathers and mothers. There is something intrinsically alluring in their Spartan existence, only them with everything we are taught to vie for in this world stripped away, leaving only their personal nakedness inside of God-experience, lived in authenticity.
It also seems no small metaphor that as the furious and vulgar winds of campaigning hits a roar, with ads, and conventions, and speeches denigrating one human or another, that hurricanes would swirl through Florida, hitting the RNC on its way between the new havocs of Haiti and New Orleans.
Nature always provides us visceral experience layered with metaphoric and symbolic examples of the tumult of the human universe.
So, what do we do? Do we leave. Do we go into the desert? Is there even a desert far enough that isn’t touched by Twitter, Facebook, iPods, iPads, and the barrage of news channels?
I think the storm metaphor comes into play again. As I was sitting in my own beach cottage home, waiting for the flood drenched streets to clear I thought about disaster preparedness. We have forewarning the storm is coming. We close shutters, tie down anything that could fly away, and then we sit tight with a flashlight and some food. It would have to get near deadly before leaving altogether makes any sense.
Some of us may be called to a desert of our own invention. For me that desert comes in the times I get to practice contemplative prayer, even if it is only 20 minutes. That is my desert, my silence, my naked intimacy with God.
But, most of us are, also, called to stay and live in this world and the tension that comes from hungering for deserts while living inside the empire. That is the hardest part–weathering the storm.
And, in the pursuit of hopefulness, I am preparing to head off this Labor Day weekend to a retreat in Chicago with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s program for Young Adults, where we will be meditating, discussing, and praying in the midst of that tension somewhere between action and contemplation.
Politicians, Expectations + Liminality
Politics will also struggle to live in liminality–that space in the in-between. In a time where reality TV reigns, politicians are stretched thin and our system is buckling under the weight of its own expectations with no tolerance for ambiguity or sentiment beyond rhetoric.
We (as a nation) expect politicians to be everything–every view has to be just so, every word has to be precise, and they have to look good enough to woo us on camera. Who could be authentic in that kind of a pressure cooker?
It makes me think of a comment I read this past year on Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans website. She said [paraphrasing], “We expect too much of our clergy–they have to be expert on everything, live a life without sin, and be preacher, marriage therapist, mentor, and academic.”
Anyone would crumble under that kind of scrutiny. This is what I see has happened with the advent of using the lives of real people as dramatic television. We have made candidates into reality stars and celebrities, and we expect them to wear the right thing while saying the right thing without error.
How can we have a transformed candidate with this criteria? How can we have a transformative system? Especially when to be spiritually transformed we must, inherently, fail and fall down, the construct we have disallows the qualities which could foster balanced leadership which can exist in the tension between opposites.
So, we watch the new reality-celebu-drama and get just what we, collectively, asked for because politicians, like television moguls, have to give us what sells to stay in business.
Weathering the Storm + Discovering Our Internal Deserts
If we want things to change we have to alter our expectations, vocalize what we see not working in the system, and, live in the tension of uncertainty and somewhere between the desert and the city–where souls can flourish and grace can be seen.
If we can board up the windows, and turn on the flashlight so we can see, we can weather the storm together and we just may survive. And when the big storm comes through, the one that rearranges everything and tears trees and houses up from where they stand, we will be left with the only thing that can persist even in the worst catastrophe–the foundation.
We can carry the lessons and teachings the Desert fathers and mothers gave us into this contemporary world, and into the center of the empire. If we can find the space in silence we can find the calm in the eye of the storm–the space in the center of chaos where everything is peacefully still.
The storm itself, the nature of the storm, is inherently a paradox and tension between two things. And the metaphor God gave us this week, in the form of a literal storm, can bring so many layers into our lives, faith, and grace in the midst of destruction.
I hope and pray we can weather this storm, this Hurricane America, together.