1st Sunday of Lent: Enter the Desert

Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green

Based on readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Today we are at the beginning of Lent; so I want to think about how we too can enter into the desert, the wilderness.

In the third century AD there was a striking development in Christianity. Because of persecution Christians took themselves off to live in the desert. Later, after the persecutions stopped, more went into the desert anyway to test themselves, as martyrdom became harder to arrange. This wasn’t then a physical escape for these esoteric characters. They entered the desert to combat themselves. The way of life they developed became the foundation on which the great monastic orders, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, built. Monastic communities are actually in vogue again — as our lady Madonna might say — but the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, as these men are called, has an enduring quality — not in a pompous, academic or pious way — but because there’s just a lot of good common sense, and a dash of humour.

One story tells of a tempestuous monk who became frustrated with how easily he became angry. Since he couldn’t find peace he took himself off to live in isolation in a deserted cave. He thought if I have nothing to do with others I won’t be tempted by anger. One day, he filled his water jug, but managed to tip it over. A second time he filled it but, clumsily, again he tipped it over.  The third time, again, he put it down and over it went. In a rage he smashed it. Then he realised that he’d been tempted by the devil. So he returned to the monastery, as he understood that conflict is to be found everywhere, even on your own, but so too is patience and the help of God.

Aside from the actual physical challenge of desert life, for the wandering Arameans, for Jesus in today’s Gospel, the desert is a symbol of escaping worldliness — and for Lent — of giving things up, of discipline, preparation for Easter. But the desert isn’t a “retreat”, it’s an advance to battle, a chance to confront yourself.  So the Desert Father Evagrius tells us:

‘If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over, so that if you do end up leaving, no offence will be caused, and you will not bring distress to others.’

We don’t solve our problems by running away from them. But space and reflection can help us to understand what’s going on, and to begin to rectify the situation.

T.S. Eliot who often wrote about the desert, accuses:

you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

The desert is a metaphor for the confrontation ultimately faced by everyone in finding ourselves alone with God. A moment which can equally be found in the Sahara, or on a crowded train rattling through East Putney.

I have spent a little time in deserts. The two most striking things are firstly, the scale of it; and in the vastness of the geography, the featureless distance, the full complement of stars above, and your smallness and insignificance. And, secondly, the exposure; the lack of shelter, of cover from friends or enemies, of food and water. It’s a very natural place to think on our mortality and place in the world. 

TE Lawrence wrote of the Arabs’ experience of the desert, that there was: ‘just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath.  There unconsciously he came near God… [in] its open spaces and its emptiness [he was] inevitably thrust upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being.’

If we don’t have the means for taking ourselves off to an actual desert, then at least we have Lent to offer us this space. On Ash Wednesday we were marked with ashes and told “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” The desert puts life in perspective. This might all sound very bleak, but TE Lawrence also remarked on how the Bedouin embraced the desert precisely for its austerity, for the nakedness of the soul within it, because ‘there he found himself… free.’ The beauty of the desert is its simplicity.  It’s a return to the basics.

Consider this from John the Dwarf, another Desert Father:  ‘we have exchanged the easy yoke of self-accusation for the heavy yoke of self-justification’.  Self-accusation initially may feel like a hard thing.  And it is hard — to admit our failings, to say we’ve made a mistake, to give up our pride in being clever, successful, perfect.  Self-justification on the other hand seems easy — to spin the stories we tell about ourselves so that we cover over our faults and mistakes; to make ourselves look good in the mirror and to the world.  So easy that it is the natural state of pretty much everyone. We’re all young, bright and popular right? But it’s a heavy burden.  To always be right, on track, successful, ahead of the game; to live up to our own and other people’s expectations can be intolerable.  It’s exactly this burden of self-justification that is the cause of most breakdowns — when the sheer weight of expectations becomes so unbearable and so impossible to sustain that our temper or our ego or our emotional wellbeing splinters.

Self-accusation, though, while seeming hard — hard to admit, embarrassing or humbling — is a liberation.  It’s the easy burden.  Because when we don’t have to be perfect, when we can admit we’ve got it wrong, the pressure we’ve created for ourselves evaporates. And we can finally stop pretending. Have we ‘exchanged the easy yoke of self-accusation for the heavy yoke of self-justification’? In Lent we might well ask this question.

Being a Xennial, I’m reminded of the 1999 film, Fight Club, which gives a kind of contemporary account of what entering the desert means. There’s a renunciation of the world.  As the main character says, “The things you own end up owning you”  and “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” The characters take a somewhat violent path after leaving their normal work routine, but like American Beauty (released in the same year), the point is that the characters step out of a life which is grey and deadening to the soul, and find strength and purpose in a simpler and less conventional lifestyle.  By stepping out of unhappy routines they also discover who they really are, the good and the bad.

It should be added, in contrast to the above films, that the point of the desert experience is to return us as socially useful, more in tune with ourselves and others. Death and dismemberment; joining a Fight Club, may prevent this. But this is another surprise of the Desert Fathers. For men and women who went out in search of isolation, they returned, formed communities or offered services which placed other people far above themselves.

One of my favourite stories is of Abba Bessarion. When a priest turned out someone, who had committed a grave sin, Abba Bessarion got up and followed him out. He said, “I too am a sinner”. Then there is Abba Poemen, who was questioned:  “If I see my brother sinning, should I hide the fact?” He replied:  “At the moment when we hide a brother’s fault, God hides our own. At the moment we reveal a brother’s fault, God reveals our own.”

Coming to terms with ourselves, confronting ourselves, should leave us less self-centred; less neurotic; less insecure of our possessions and place in the world. Part of the freedom of the desert is to be less attached to our needs and desires and free to to care for others.

So Lent is a chance for us in these forty days to try — perhaps solidly on one point — perhaps a little here and there — to enter into the desert; to think about the big things, which are also the simple things; to spend some time alone with just our self and God; to allow ourselves to be a little exposed. But also perhaps to find a little freedom, escaping some of the social, domestic and personal pressure we put on ourselves. And perhaps we can, like Jesus, also put the noise of consumerism and carnality behind us for a while, with all the temptations of the devil; and recalling the line earlier from Romans; in simplicity find that:

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’
And the devil will depart and the angels minister to us. Amen.

SermonsLaura Giffard