Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lenten Desert Experience from a Quaker Perspective

Lent is associated with the fourth-century Christians who followed Jesus' example and went into the desert for a period of prayer and fasting as a way of getting into closer touch with God. The desert is a place where we encounter the Truth and the Truth encounters us. Desert spirituality means much more than getting out of the noise of the city into the silence of the wilderness. In the desert, life is reduced to the utter simplicity of "What Is." On the desert, there is no name for God other than "I exist." There is no place for diversions, distractions, luxuries or trivia. When Friends speak of "simplicity," they are recalling this desert experience.

Like the Hebrews who were called out of Egypt into the desert to wait for Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we are called to the utter simplicity of desert living, so that nothing might stand between us and the living God. The desert experience begins with the deliberate decision to deny one's physical pleasure to receive a greater spiritual treasure.

But Lent is more than just self-denial, it is also a time self-examination. Jesus went to the desert to confront the forces of darkness within himself. This is a journey that each of us must take if we want to know ourselves, and to know God. Self-examination does not mean a morbid fixation on our shortcomings; it means trying to be realistic-- acknowledging the failings that are really ours and then resolving to set things right.

For several years, I used to go out to the Nevada nuclear test site with a group of Friends for what was called "the Lenten Desert Witness." In early spring, as the wildflowers begin to bloom, the desert was surprisingly beautiful. Looking out over the blue mountains in the distance, it was hard to believe that just over the ridge a village of scientists and workers was busily planning the most efficient means to create weapons of mass destruction. Most of these people had no qualms whatever about what they were doing; many were no doubt church-goers.

Witnessing in the desert with like-minded Friends was a powerful spiritual experience. We ate, slept and prayed together. Many of us were arrested, manacled, and kept in holding pens by the state troopers. Sharing our feelings and our stories while hand-cuffed, we felt deeply connected to each other and to the source of Life.

We worshipped together under the open sky, acutely conscious that we were standing on holy ground, and that this ground belonged not to us, but to the Native People and to the Great Spirit. (Before beginning our vigil, we were given "passports" by local indigenous people, who were trying to reclaim their land.) During a time of worship, a woman confessed how deeply sorry she felt for the way that white people had desecrated this beautiful and sacred land. Her voice choked with emotion and her pangs of conscience flowed through the entire group. Finally, after a long and painful silence, a Native American woman spoke: "Our elders have heard your words, and so has the Great Spirit. And they forgive you." It was as if the Earth herself were speaking. No moment of worship has ever been more precious.

You don't have to go to the desert to confess your shortcomings and experience healing. One of the most important spiritual experiences of my life was attending the "Surrender Group" at Princeton Meeting. This group was started by Herrymon Maurer, a Friend whose translation of the Tao Teh Ching draws fascinating connections between Taoism, John Woolman, and Jewish mysticism. Each week we met to reflect upon "Ten Queries" that were based upon the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the queries that I remember best is, "Are you willing to take a fearless moral inventory of your life?"

There is a real power in conducting this kind of inventory, whether you do it alone or in a group. When we examine ourselves alone, however, we are apt either to wallow in vague, unspecified guilt ("I'm a terrible person! Poor me!") or to deny our guilt entirely ("I'm okay, the world's okay"). In a group, or with a friend, it is sometimes easier to be more specific and honest. Such honest acknowledgment of our shortcomings can profoundly change our behavior.

In the course of a vigorous self-examination, one discovers that just as there is "that of God" in each of us, there is also "that of the devil." During the time of Fox, the devil was often seen as something purely external. Fox resisted the temptation to see evil as something "out there," apart from oneself, that had to be combated, often by force of arms. Fox realized that by far the most dangerous demons are those we carry within us:

Yet I was under great temptation sometimes, and my inwards sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. And I went into Nottinghamshire, and there the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without were within, in the hearts and minds of wicked men. The nature of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc. The nature of these I saw within, though people had been looking without.

Horrified by this glimpse of human evil that each of us carries inside, Fox asks:

'Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?' And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else could I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God (Journal 19).

This experience corresponds to what Carl Jung called "facing one's shadow." Long before Jung, Fox recognized that we must confront the dark side of ourselves before we can be of psychological or spiritual assistance to others.

Friends prefer talking about the "darkness" rather than about "sin," perhaps because this latter concept has been used to manipulative ways. The Catholic theologian Matthew Fox (no relation to George) once pointed out that the church invented sin so that priests could administer sacraments and thereby control people. It is for this reason that Fox (George, not Mathew) infuriated the 16th-century religious establishment by insisting that those who have given up self-will and are living in the Light are no longer sinners; they live in the state that Adam was before the fall.

The Puritanical sometimes use the concept of sin as a peculiar form of self-advertisement. John Bunyan, for example, wrote a popular book confessing (or was he boasting?) that he was "the chief of sinners." Nowadays, people go on television parading their sins in a parody of penitence. Such self-advertising guilt is not new, nor is it spiritually helpful. Some of Jesus' contemporaries "repented" with such ostentatious fervor that Jesus finally said, "Enough of this!" He instructed to keep their penitence and fasting as a private encounter with God, rather than trying to show the public how sinful (and therefore how holy) they were. As those in AA learn, we are wise not to make a big deal out of our misdeeds and our repentance.

As we mature in our spiritual life, we come to see our shortcomings in a larger social context and as part of a larger divine order. When mistakes are made, they are to be acknowledged and learned from. Just as we cannot achieve spiritual health alone, we do not become not spiritually sick alone. Each of us is interrelated. We each carry the seeds of war and social dis-ease inside ourselves. As Woolman notes in an often quoted passage,

"O that we declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the Light, and therein examine our foundations and motives in holding great estates...."

Once we have acknowledged our complicity with the society that fosters injustice, war, and numerous forms of neuroses, we can begin the process of healing not only ourselves, but also our community.

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