Desert Communion

Posted on 2007-07-21. Filed under: Thoughts |

So, today I finished The Sacred Romance. The first chapter I read this morning was Desert Communion: Learning to Live on Heaven’s Shores.

Here’s a quote:

Every courtship, at least every healthy one, is moving toward a deeper heart intimacy that is the ground for the consummation of the relationship spiritually, emotionally and physically. The first question in the orthodox confession of faith tests our awareness of this wonderful truth when it asks, “What is the chief end and purpose of man?” And the answer: “To know God and enjoy knowing him forever.”

The chapter goes on to say that this knowing isn’t really learning more about him. It’s knowing him as a wife knows a husband. It’s a relationship that is very intimate — full of passion and desire.

Here are some more quotes that really came to life for me:

It is his voice that has whispered to us about a Sacred Romance. What do you hear when you listen for that gentle, quiet voice? What I so often hear, or feel, is a restlessness, a distractedness, where it seems that dozens if not hundreds of disconnected or scattered thoughts vie for my attention. Bits and pieces of my smaller story, and sometimes major edifices, flash onto the screen: what other people think of me and what I need to do to win them. Anger, ego, lust, and simply blankness of spirit all take turns occupying my heart.

We often find ourselves praying for God to “do” this or for him to help us “do” that. Our prayers seem to originate from somewhere near the surface of our skin rather than any deep place inside. We go away feeling that we have not communed, that we have not put down our burdens, and indeed, we haven’t.

Two years ago, worn out by three years of spiritual battle, I found myself asking the question this way: “Jesus, if your Spirit abides in me in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is my Comforter, why do I so often feel alone and you seem so far away?” What came to me in response were Jesus’ words in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus was saying, “Living spiritually requires something more than just not sinning or doing good works. In order to live in the kingdom of heaven, you must abide in me. Your identity is in me.” If I’m not abiding in Jesus, then where is it that I abide?” I asked myself.

My “comforter,” my abiding place, was cynicism and rebellion. From this abiding place, I would feel free to use some soul cocaine – a violence video with maybe a little sexual titillation thrown in, perhaps having a little more alcohol with a meal than I might normally drink – things that would allow me to feel better for just a little while. I had always thought of these things as bad habits. I began to see that they were much more; they were spiritual abiding places that were my comforters and friends in a very spiritual way; literally, other lovers.

It also dawned on me that holiness, surprisingly, also comes not out of doing but out of staying at home [abiding], with who and were we are and with who and where God is in us. … And in the meantime, out of this abiding, Jesus transforms us. Our identity begins to coalesce, not out of doing, but out of living with a good friend for a number of years and simply finding we have become more like him.

Besides these false comforters that we abide in, there are also the less-wild lovers I spoke of in Chapter 9 that are intertwined with our heart because they give us an identity. Whether it be accumulating great wealth, being seen as profound due to our knowledge and cleverness of speech, being physically attractive, or any of the hundreds of other small stories we have learned to abide in, we live in fear that we will sooner or later be exposed and our identities will be stripped from us. We redouble our efforts at “doing” to prevent this calamity, and again, in our ontological lightness, our lack of being anchored in anything substantive, we experience the spiritual life as burdensome and exhausting.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest, says Jesus. Most of us think of spiritual progress as requiring us to do more, even as our heart cries out to us to lay our burdens down.

When we hear the phrase “trust totally in God,” most of us probably sigh, hearing it as one more requirement that we have never been able to live up to. But what if we were to listen to our hearts, and hear it as a need to faint, a need to lay down our “doings” and simply make our needs known to Christ, and rest in him?

How do we go about actually “doing” rest? When Jesus was preparing for his public ministry, as well as his battle with Satan, he went to the desert…. There is a place on each of our spiritual journeys where the Spirit also desires to lead us into the desert. We hear him calling to us in the restlessness and weariness of our own heart…. Adds Henri Nouwen, in The Way of the Heart, “Without solitude, we remain acolytes of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.” In order to learn who we really are, we must have a place in our lives where we are removed from the materialism, entertainment, diversion, and busyness that the Vanity Fair of our society and culture immerse us in. The things sold at the booths in the Fair are tranquilizers that separate us, and protect us, from the emptiness and need of our heart. As we leave these less-wild lovers behind and enter into solitude and silence in our own desert place, the first thing we encounter is not rest, but fear, and a compulsion to return to activity…. Our emptiness is often the first thing we find when we face honestly the story going on in our heart. It is the desert’s gift to us.

Resting in Jesus is not applying a spiritual formula to ourselves as a kind of fix-it. It is the essence of repentance. It is letting our heart tell us where we are in our own story so that Jesus can minister to us out of the Story of his love for us. When, in a given moment, we lay down our false self and the smaller story of whatever performance has sustained us, when we give up everything else but him, we experience the freedom of knowing that he simply loves us where we are. We begin just to be, having our identity anchored in him. We begin to experience our spiritual life as the “easy yoke and light burden” Jesus tells us is his experience.

OK, that’s all of the quotes from that chapter. I can’t really put into words the thoughts and feelings I got after reading this chapter. But, I do have an affirmation that this is what God is calling me to right now. He is calling me to the desert – to rediscover him and to rediscover myself in him. He is calling me to live a life with him – a life with no guarantees of what will happen, a life in which I have to trust him completely and to utterly depend on him for every good thing.

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