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Desert Wisdom for Autumn Days - Reflections for October 2020
The Ven Dr Justine Allain Chapman
Week one: Paying Attention
I spent time in the desert some years ago on a week-long retreat. I’d expected it to be hot and barren, and it was, but it was also cold and beautiful. I have always loved the beauty of autumn and as I take in the piercing blue that the sky can be just now and the browns, yellows and orange of leaves, I am reminded of the desert with its blue skies and the intensity of the colours of sand and rock.
Long ago, in the third and fourth century many Christians made their way into the desert and found that the desert, as St Anthony said, was a great spiritual teacher. Some Christians went to retreat from the world and others went to seek advice from those desert fathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas. The desert Christians were healers rather than teachers, their wisdom touched the soul. Their counsel came in pithy sayings to individuals which can help us in these autumn days which share the colours and the cold of the desert, though not the heat.
When we talk about desert experiences, we mean times where the landscape of our lives has changed. This year has thrust us into new, difficult and uncertain territory. We are aware of its challenges, losses and even gifts such as the remembered beauty of spring, but now another season has come upon us and the territory is as bleak and uncertain as ever. In the desert I was very conscious that if I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings and to the state of body and mind I wouldn’t survive very long. I needed to find shelter, ration water, not panic. Paying attention is a theme of desert wisdom. Noticing the impact of the world outside on us and the inner landscape within us teaches us humility, trust and compassion, not least on ourselves, but we need to give time to paying attention.
Abba Moses said: Go, sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything
I don’t know how I will manage another season of uncertainty and limitation. What more can I learn from this restriction? ‘Everything’, Abba Moses says, by paying attention to what is going on. We tend to think of a cell as a place where we are confined, but a cell is also the place which contains the building blocks of life itself.
Our forebears in faith, such as Hagar, Jacob, Elijah and John the Baptist have struggled in the desert, restricted and far away from their normal lives. Humble before God, yet expectant of God’s help, they were strengthened. As we sit and pray, present to Life itself, may we pay attention to the season, aware of the bleakness and the beauty.
Visit this place, O Lord, we pray, and drive far from it the snares of the enemy;
May your holy angels dwell with us and guard us in peace,
And may your blessing be upon us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Week two: Clearing a path and letting go
If you have seen the TV programme Tidying Up with Marie Kondo or read her bestseller The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organising? you will know the importance of getting rid of things, but of being grateful. Marie Kondo advises you to pick up that jumper or sandwich toaster with gratitude for what it has been to you, but to pass it on if it does not spark joy in you. If joy is sparked in you she recommends that you put it in the place where it is to be kept, that you give it a home, folding it, if you can, with thankfulness. The purpose of all this is to enable a house to become a home, a place where there is gratitude for what you have, and joy.
I wonder whether as trees experience their leaves falling, the beauty of the reds and yellow and orange is a grateful acknowledgment of the season of buds, fresh green leaves and fruitfulness which has now come to an end. I love to spend a few minutes on a golden autumn day watching leaves twirl and fall, remembering the joys of the summer past and gently letting go of them as I turn to face a new season.
Gentle resolution of life’s challenges is a welcome gift but alongside it are difficult decisions about when and how to end habits and relationships which lead us nowhere good. Leaves don’t only drop delicately from branches. In the necessary fierce and chill wind branches bend and gusts of wind tug leaves off the trees. While we talk a lot about letting go, the wisdom which emerges from the desert is more direct: Flee! ‘Repent’ is what John the Baptist would have called it, proclaiming now as the time to change and turn to God. Centuries before John the Baptist the prophet Isaiah called upon God’s people to, ‘Make a straight path through the desert’.
Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Macarius saying, ‘Give me a word.’ The old man said to him, ‘Flee from people,’ Abba Isaiah said to him, ‘What does it mean to flee from people?’ The old man said, ‘It means to sit in your cells and weep for your sins.’
I have spent enough time with myself this year to have become aware of some of the things I now need to put some energy into fleeing from, such as habits of thought and speech. I think I secretly hoped that going back to normal would distract me from having to. This isn’t a time for wallowing or self-pity, but as Abba Macarius predicted, I expect there will be tears of struggle and loss as I see myself as I am, in order to glimpse what I can be, in Christ. I will go shuffling through autumn leaves and sweep them up to clear a path to prevent me and others from slipping up. The physical activity will help me mull, pray, let go and pledge myself to flee from what erodes life. I can start the work to clear an inner path so that I can be at peace as I sit in my cell, so that my life can spark joy. Will you?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference Reinhold Niebuhr
Week three: Guarding the fire
Squirrels and other animals are finding a place to hibernate, to conserve their energy in the winter months. They are not stockpiling, but they are gathering provisions to see them through the season. Every autumn we look out our jumpers, see if we can find both gloves, wonder if we should have our winter coat dry cleaned. We prepare ourselves so as to be protected from the cold, wind and rain. We conserve energy by closing curtains and sustain our bodies with soup and porridge.
Desert life involves paying attention to what kind of protection you need in the heat of the day and in the cold temperatures of the night. I found scarves very useful to protect me from the sun and wind and to wrap around myself when it got colder. I had to be alert to the changing temperature day and night. Living in these conditions made the desert Christians conscious, not only of the need to protect and sustain the body, but also to guard the inner life. You guard the fire of your inner life by directing your energy to healing and growth, to Life itself. Two things are key – discernment and non-judgement.
‘Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart,’ says Abba Poemen.
Our inner life, our sense of ourselves cannot be left to chance any more than a squirrel leaves finding a place and storing provisions to chance. Squirrels tap nuts to see if they are worthy of being stored during the winter. We must discern what is life giving and turn towards it.
Not judging ourselves is a constant theme in the sayings of the Desert Christians:
A brother who shared a lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, ‘What should I do?’ The old man replied, ‘Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others.’
Judging and blaming ourselves depletes our strength and energy. As we grow in compassion and wisdom, let go of and sweep away habits and relationships that erode us, we can be quite exposed and vulnerable, like a tree in winter, until new life emerges. To guard our inner fire conserves our strength for healing and growth. It isn’t pampering ourselves, but we would do well not to be hard on ourselves, not to judge ourselves when we fail to do something improving or are overcome with anxiety. We will also grow in love of others, for not judging oneself very easily spills over into not judging others.
The onset of winter in the middle of a global pandemic is likely to mean there are good days and bad days. Time inside and with our own thoughts is time where we would do well to discern good provisions to feed our minds and sustain our souls – we might find a hymn to sing, an inspiring podcast or a book of the bible to read.
Be with us, Lord, in all our prayers,
and direct our way
toward the attainment of salvation,
that among the changes and chances
of this mortal life,
we may always be defended
by your gracious help,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Week four: Darkness and discipline
At this time of year we comment on the dark evenings, anticipating ever deepening night. Evening creeps into the afternoon and we wake in darkness. Anticipating and planning are things I am good at, but my children laugh at me remembering how I would continually tell them, when they were small, what time it would be the next week, when the clocks went back or forward. This was my attempt to establish bedtime routines and secure a lie in.
When I spent time in the desert I found that I was overtaken by the darkness, which didn’t creep up on me as it does all through autumn at home. Suddenly it got dark and if I wasn’t ready, with a torch to hand, I’d be scrabbling around, lost, panicky and scared. Darkness prevents us from seeing what is immediately ahead of us. It narrows our vision and we lose sight of the bigger picture.
I have learned that too much emphasis on anticipating the darkness robs me of living in the day. It is the practice of discipline which helps me welcome rather than resent the darkness. Discipline takes effort and involves changing habits. Sometimes I will sit sullenly not putting on lights, closing curtains, or lighting a fire, resisting what is the necessary cycle of the seasons. But I can pledge myself to focus on the light rather than the darkness, to welcome it, light a candle, knowing the darkness has gifts of its own. Animals hibernate, land needs to lie fallow, bulbs need to be left in the cold and dark if they are to flower.
‘Stay’ is as much of a theme of desert wisdom as ‘Flee.’ It is the quality of discernment which determines which is apt for the moment. The coldness and dark is an invitation to stay, but the restrictions of a pandemic are forced upon us, and are ones which don’t have a predictable cycle.
Amma Syncletia said, ‘If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another.’
We cannot plan to travel or gather together as we are used to doing. Amma Syncletia advises against it for spiritual reasons. If we spend much of our energy on outside, even if on worthy activities, they are a distraction from the work of healing and growing whole. For us to truly live we must be born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus, and this wise desert mother reminds us to be disciplined, to stay with our stuff and to wait for new life to hatch. To sit reflecting on our own lives in the presence of God, in prayer, in these dark days isn’t selfish, though we might describe it as such to avoid its demands. What will emerge will not just be for ourselves, but be life giving for others.
Darkness invites us to stay with our stuff, looking back to the fruitfulness and colour of early October with gratitude. Establishing daily disciplines of welcoming warmth and light will prevent us from wallowing and help us remember that longer days will return. The church, in the coming month of November will invite us to remember, follow the saints in light and endure as they did. Wisdom from desert experiences can guide us.
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;
and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Justine Allain Chapman is the Archdeacon of Boston in the Diocese of Lincoln. She has written two books which address the theme of resilience: Resilient Pastors: the role of adversity in healing and growth (SPCK 2012) and The Resilient Disciple: a Lenten journey from adversity to maturity (SPCK 2018).