As I write these words, we are celebrating Easter, and in particular, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is indeed, the cornerstone of our faith.
As Pope John Paul II (paraphrasing St. Augustine) commented during a visit to Adelaide in 1986,
We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery — the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!
If Easter is the gateway to glory, then Lent — the period of observance in the liturgical year preceding Easter — is the narrow corridor that leads to eternal life. During this time, we commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert before commencing his public ministry. We identify with Jesus in his humility and obedience to the Father — an obedience that would ultimately lead to his death on the cross.
Speaking of this identification, the apostle Paul exhorted believers to “Let this same attitude and purpose and [humble] mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus: [Let Him be your example in humility] … after He had appeared in human form, He abased and humbled Himself [still further] and carried His obedience to the extreme of death, even the death of the cross!” (Phil 2.5,8 Amplified).
Whilst Jesus was fasting and praying in the desert, Satan came and tempted him in three specific ways: Firstly, to satisfy his own needs instead of doing the will of the Father (“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread …”). Secondly, to act presumptuously and independently of the Father’s direction (“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down …”). Thirdly, to seek honour without obedience, and glory without sacrifice (“All these things I will give you if you fall down and worship me …”).
According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus overcame these temptations and returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee and began teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and disease among the people (Luke 4.1-14).
For followers of Christ, Lent is a time of prayer, soul-searching, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. In fact, Lenten observance could be summed up in two words: humility and simplicity. However, Lent is not just about abstaining from food and renouncing personal luxuries; at a fundamental level, it signifies a fasted life — turning away from the things of this world in order to focus our attention on God.
Thus, Lent constitutes an essential part of our spiritual journey as we follow in the steps of the Master and learn to “submit to God and resist the devil” (James 4.7).
John of Egypt
The Feast Day of St. John of Egypt, March 27th, usually falls during the season of Lent. This is significant as the life of John of Egypt, also known as ‘John the Hermit’ or ‘John the Anchorite’ epitomises the spirit and character of true Lenten observance.
John was born in Lycopolis in the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt around 305. He trained as a carpenter, but at the age of 25 sensed a divine call, forsook the world, and placed himself under the guidance and direction of an elderly hermit. Like Elijah with Elisha, the venerable old man tested John’s character by assigning him menial and sometimes ridiculous tasks.
For example, the Christian monk and theologian, John Cassian (360 – 435), tells a story about the hermit asking John to water a dry stick for a whole year as if it were a living plant, only to pick up the stick and throw it away at the end of that time! Perhaps the hermit was teaching John to focus on the process (character formation) rather than the outcome (the fruit of his labours)!
Indeed, in the Institutes of the Monastic Life (420 – 429), book IV, chapter 23, Cassian attributed the spiritual gifts that John later received to the humility and unquestioning obedience that he learned during those formative years.
After the hermit died, John spent the next four years travelling and visiting neighbouring monasteries. He eventually withdrew to the top of a cliff near Lycopolis in order to avoid all human contact. He carved three cells out of the rock — one for sleep, one for work, and one for prayer. He then walled them up, leaving only a small window through which he could communicate to people who brought him food and water twice a week.
Five days of the week he conversed only with God, but on Saturdays and Sundays he addressed the crowds that came to seek spiritual guidance. John was renowned for his ability to perform miracles, often by sending the sick some oil that he had blessed. He also exercised the gift of prophecy, often disclosing the most secret thoughts and hidden sins of those who came to see him.
News of John’s prodigious powers even reached the courts of the Roman Emperor, Theodosius the Great. When civil war broke out between the eastern and western provinces of the Empire in 388, Theodosius reportedly consulted John about the success of his battle with his rival, Magnus Maximus. John assured Theodosius that he would prevail with the shedding of very little blood. When the usurper Eugenius threatened Theodosius’ rule some 4 years later, he sent an envoy to Egypt to consult John as to whether it was God’s will for him to march against his adversary in the west.
John eventually died around the age of 90, having spent approximately 50 years of his life in contemplative solitude. Foreseeing the time of his death, John asked that no one visit him for three days. He was discovered in his cell with his body in a position of prayer. After St. Anthony, John is considered one of the foremost Desert Fathers of the 4th century.
I can hear people asking, “Wasn’t John a bit extreme?” By our standards, yes! But he was also extremely powerful, extremely influential, and extremely spiritual. He was a man who lived in heaven and walked on earth; a man who was more aware of the spiritual realm than the natural realm. As the 18th century hagiographer Alban Butler, observed:
“The solitude which the Holy Ghost recommends, and which the saints embraced, resembled that of Jesus Christ, being founded on the same motive or principle, having the same exercises and employments, and the same end. Christ was conducted by the Holy Ghost into the desert, and he there spent his time in prayer and fasting …
“To those who thus sanctify their desert or cell, it will be an anticipated paradise, an abyss of spiritual advantages and comforts, known only to such as have enjoyed them. The Lord will change the desert into a place of delights, and will make the solitude a paradise, and a garden worthy of himself. In it only joy and jubilee shall be seen, nothing shall be heard but thanksgiving and praise.
“It is the dwelling of a terrestrial seraph, whose sole employment is to labour to know, and correct all secret disorders of his own soul, to forget the world, and all objects of vanity which could distract or entangle him; to subdue his senses, to purify the faculties of his soul, and entertain in his heart a constant fire of devotion, by occupying it assiduously on God, Jesus Christ, and heavenly things, and banishing all superfluous desires and thoughts …”
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, 1759.
Incorporating desert spirituality into 21st century urban living
It may not be practical for you and I to pack up our belongings, travel into the middle of the desert, and wall ourselves up in a cell carved out of rock. However, if we are to be effective emissaries of the kingdom of Heaven, we must learn how to incorporate desert spirituality into 21st-century urban living.
Jesus put it this way: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Mat 6.6). In other words, if you want to be effective on the street corner or in the marketplace, you need to first spend time in the secret place — the ‘dwelling of the terrestrial seraph, where you forget the world and all objects of vanity, and entertain in your heart a fire of devotion by occupying it assiduously on God and heavenly things.’
Paul alludes to this life lived in the realm of the Spirit in his letter to the Christians in Rome. I particularly like Kenneth S. Wuest’s translation as it captures the essence of the Greek text.
“For those who are habitually dominated by the sinful nature put their minds on the things of the sinful nature, but those who are habitually dominated by the Spirit put their minds on the things of the Spirit … Moreover, those who are in the sphere of the sinful nature are not able to please God. But, as for you, you are not in the sphere of the sinful nature but in the sphere of the Spirit, provided that the Spirit of God is in residence in you” (Rom 8.5,8-9).
Paul then explains how we can be habitually dominated by the Spirit and live continually in the Spirit’s sphere. “Those who are habitually dominated by the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” This is a self-perpetuating cycle: The more we set our minds on the things of the Spirit, the more we will be dominated (controlled, directed) by the Spirit.
The key word here is contemplation — what we set our minds on, the things we focus our attention on. We are called to continually contemplate the presence of God and the things that pertain to His kingdom. Hence the words of Paul to the believers in Colossae:
“If you have been raised to life in fellowship with Christ, keep on seeking the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Practice occupying your minds with the things above, not with the things on earth; for you have died, and your life is now hidden in God through your fellowship with Christ” (Col 3.1-3 Williams).
The essence of desert spirituality is ‘contemplative quiet’ (Greek: hēsychía) — that state of separation from the world, and outer and inner silence and peace that facilitates divine revelation and self-realisation. And as 21st century urban pilgrims, we need to find what works best for us in our own situations and circumstances. It may be walking in nature, it may be sitting on a beach, it may be kneeling quietly in a candle-lit room, or it may be inhabiting some other kind of sacred space.
Whatever your ‘secret place’ consists of, go in and ‘shut the door’ to the world and its distractions; practice occupying your mind with the atmosphere of heaven; and allow the glory of the Lord to transform your soul. And then go forth in the power of the Spirit to change the world!