Probably Most of Us Should Stay Away from the Desert

I love the desert and I love desert spirituality: the hope of meeting an indifferent desert-dwelling God, the beauty of grotesqueness, and all the other contradictions the desert offers. Having grown up in what many folk of more pleasant climes would call a desert, I also have a natural affinity that only comes from having left that which I once took for granted. One of the best essays I ever posted on this site (in my opinion) is on this very subject. But this being said …

Probably most of us should stay away from the desert if we want to take those next difficult steps toward becoming one with God. The desert is a dangerous place. Instead of the Church, the Body of Christ, in the desert we find jackals and scorpions and all those other symbols of demonic power that live in the ragged edge between creation and chaos. Instead of God (because God, in the desert, is surprisingly indifferent) we find our own egos and the demons, whispering on the wind about our own grandiose thoughts, “Yes, this is God, this is revelation, this enlightenment!”

God has given us a place where we can journey toward union with him: the Eucharistic Community. It is sometimes boring, almost always annoying, it is full of sinners and hypocrites, and in the midst of struggling with all this, we receive the gift of his very being, his very life, and make it our own. In the midst of everything that is wrong with life all put together in one sanctuary, we can discover True Life and transformation.

The desert is for those who have advanced far in the community. The desert is for those who are already intimately familiar with the voice of God – the true voice of God – and have been given the tools to find it and hear it amidst the jackals and scorpions and demons whispering in the wind. And when the voice of God does not come, the desert is for those who already have a measure of patience to wait on the utter silence of God.

Chances are, that is not a description of you and me. For you and me, the desert is an excuse to escape the Eucharistic Community and all the annoyances it entails.

For the Orthodox, Lent is just beginning and we have seven long weeks until Pascha. I am in a similar mood to a loved one who, after Divine Liturgy last week, said, “I think I’ll give up church for Lent.”

Leanne, over at the This Much I Know blog recommended the Lenten daily guide produced by the Anglican Board of Mission in Australia. It turns out to be a wonderful guide that is using the desert as the basis for its meditations. Ironically, it is in the form of an Android or iPhone app. (And you should also check out Leanne’s blog, which is a great mixture of spiritual and down home stuff.)

But as nourishing as this desert spirituality seems to be, this year I am left wondering: is it a true pilgrimage or just an escape?

Or possibly we need six weeks of jackals and scorpions and demons whispering in the wind to drive us back to the Eucharistic Community, and the words of the hymn, as we make the profound pilgrimage from pew to chalice: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Once I truly grasp that, maybe I’ll be ready for the desert.


It Is Time for the Lord to Act!

[The title, if it’s unfamiliar, is the very first thing the Deacon says in the Divine Liturgy (the Sunday eucharistic service) of the Eastern Orthodox Church.]

As I have mentioned ad nauseum in recent weeks, I’m re-reading Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecuminism. I have felt not unlike poor Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It is a reductionist analysis of a handful of particularly contentious issues surrounding the Eucharist. There is nothing wrong with reducing a complex issue to its constituent parts in order to better understand them – that’s why I read authors like Hunsinger – but this time around I’m finding the book to be tough sledding precisely because it is so reductionist.

I decided to turn off the Kindle and go back to The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the particular eucharistic service we pray on a weekly basis in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I didn’t disect it or analyze it. All I did was read it through from The Great Doxology to the Dismissal and took a few notes along the way.

I was once again reminded that Sunday morning is quite simple. It’s “here and back again” (to steal a subtitle from Tolkein); it’s a journey to heaven where

We who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice holy hymn … lay aside all earthly cares … That we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia!

Much of the ecumenical debate surrounds the question of sacrifice at the Eucharist. Is it a re-sacrificing of Christ, a participation in the eternal sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice of praise by the Church to Christ? The Liturgy skips all the quibbling and gets to the heart of the matter by combining a paraphrase of Jesus’ words on the cross with the Eastern version of a kyrie:

Forgive, O God, those who hate us and those who love us. O God be gracious unto me a sinner, and have mercy upon me.

Note the sublime order: forgive others first (even my enemies!) and then in due time, forgive me. And then as the Elements are lifted high, as if in sacrifice, these incomparable words turn that sacrifice argument on its head:

God hath gone up in jubilation: the Lord with the voice of the trumpet.

It’s a journey (and a Victory Lap for Jesus Christ) … it’s a feast … it’s a forgiveness-fest of those who hate us (and once our priorities are in order, a forgiveness-fest from God to us) … it’s sustenance for the days ahead … It’s battle with the evil one.

Sorry, George Hunsinger, but it’s waaaaay better than your book. (And I suspect you’d agree 100%.) Spoiler alert: Here’s the very end of the service … it seems a good place to stop.

Priest: The blessing of the Lord and his mercy. Christ is in our midst!

People: He is and ever shall be!


I hope everyone has a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

My thinking always goes in the direction of the Eucharist on Thanksgiving day because the Greek word eucharistia is translated “thanksgiving” in English.

Alexander Schmemann once wrote, talking about the sacraments in general, not the Eucharist in particular, that we do not ask God to make things to be something they are not, but to become what they truly are.

This Thanksgiving, may your meal become what eating was truly meant to be, a communion, an event in common in which the people participate in one another through the grace (charis — the root word for eucharistia, or thanksgiving) of food and conversation.