Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Retreating Like Jesus

Jesus in the Wilderness
The forty days of the season of Lent find their inspiration in Jesus’ forty-day retreat.  It is a time to get ready, a time to prepare for Holy Week and Easter: for the hard spiritual work of dying and rising.  You can’t just dive into this kind of thing.  You need to ease-in.  You need some retreat time.

Jesus provides a pattern of living for us to imitate.  It starts with his baptism.  His washing in the River Jordan under the guidance of John the baptizer is a kind of consecration.  It fixes his intention to live a consecrated life, a life with God.  His baptism is a ritual drowning, which symbolically prefigures his death and resurrection, his willingness to let go of everything that inhibits life with God so that he may receive his identity from God alone.  He rises from the muddy river, and is given to know that he is God’s Beloved, in whom God delights. 

It all begins with baptism, but it is just a beginning.  Baptism is not a magic act.  It signifies an intention.  It reveals our true identity.  But it remains for us to live into that intention and internalize that identity.  Baptism is a symbol that provides the grace to make real what it reveals.  It initiates a process of making it real.  The first step in that process for Jesus is this forty-day retreat. 

Let’s be clear that this is a retreat – it is not a vacation.  It isn’t a time to chill, much less a way to disconnect and escape from reality.  Retreating like Jesus is about connecting to reality at a deeper level, moving beneath the superficiality and artificiality of our routines.  It is a kind of interior work.  It requires a significant investment of time and energy.  It isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be scary.  The whole point of retreating like Jesus, after all, is to acquaint ourselves with the devil.

“Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”[1]   Let’s break that down a bit.

led by the Spirit – Jesus didn’t truck into the wilderness under his own steam.  It wasn’t his own bright idea.  He was led there.  Mark’s Gospel puts it even more strongly: he was driven there.  Jesus was willing to submit to the leading of the Spirit, to a deeper desire, a spiritual hunger that only God could satisfy. 

One of my teachers, Tilden Edwards, says that

the Spirit is dropping the bottom out of everyone’s self-imposed spiritual floor ever more fully as we’re ready and willing for it over our whole lifetime . . . The deep spiritual tradition tells us that this process continues through and beyond this life until there is no trace of deluded or willful separation left between us and the Loving One in whose image we are made, or between us and the community of creation.[2] 

This is what happened to Jesus when he was about thirty years old.  The bottom dropped out, and he found himself being led by the Spirit to a place where he could more fully integrate this spiritual breakthrough.  Acknowledging and trusting our spiritual hunger is foundational.  Do you even recognize your desire for God?  Do you trust it?

Lent is a time to acknowledge our profound spiritual hunger, our desire for God, and see where the Spirit leads us.  She will, no doubt, lead us in the wilderness.

in the wilderness – Making a retreat requires time and space apart from our normal routines and familiar surroundings.  That is what the wilderness represents.  There is a geography of the Spirit, a sense in which retreating like Jesus requires a particular kind of environment. 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many monasteries are located in deserts, mountain tops, and remote islands.  There is something about renewing our intimacy with the natural rhythms of life that supports our interior work.  It frees us from the markers of culture that shape our identity, and allows us to stand naked before God.   The wilderness is a liminal space, where we can die to old ways of being and be born again. 

I want to emphasize here that the Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness; not into the wilderness, as if the Spirit brought him there, dropped him off, and said, “Good luck.”[3]  The Spirit leads us while we are in the wilderness.  In fact, I suspect the Spirit brings us there so that we can discern the Spirit’s promptings more clearly, without the distractions and filters of civilization. 

Lent is a time to go into the wilderness.  It may not be a literal wilderness.  Ocean Beach or the Presidio can do in a pinch.  Getting your hands dirty in the garden will certainly help.  Let the Spirit lead you to the place where you can let go – an art studio, house sitting for your neighbor, a quiet room set aside for meditation.  Go there.  You know you want to.  Trust your desire for God.

for forty days – retreating like Jesus isn’t a quick fix.  It took him forty days to hit bottom after the Spirit pulled the floor out from under him.  It takes time to let go.  It takes time for the mind to descend into the heart.  It doesn’t just happen (well, except when it does – you never know with God).  Normally, we require some time to detox before we can rediscover our true identity.

The rains fell for forty days until the floods rose and the earth was renewed.  Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai while God revealed the Torah to him.  Israel spent forty years in the wilderness preparing for the Promised Land.  There is nothing magical about the number forty.  It symbolizes for us the fullness of time, our need to accept that God’s slow work in us takes as long as it takes to come to completion.

Lent is an invitation to use these forty days – as much of it as we can – to retreat like Jesus.  Maybe its 20 minutes a day for forty days – or for the rest of your life.  Maybe it is a three-day weekend retreat.  Perhaps you and your spouse can gift each other with one weekend day where one of you has the kids, while the other has a retreat day.  Maybe it is one minute at a time, 20 times each day, as Charlie Gregg once suggested to me!  Let it take however long it takes.  What is truly more important?  It isn’t your time anyway.  It is God’s time.  You’ll know it has been long enough when, not if, the devil shows up.

he was tempted by the devil – I said that retreating like Jesus is no vacation.  The devil is the proof of it.  Here, we need to get over our modern, rational contempt for the idea of the devil.  The devil is real, and an important component of the New Testament witness.  Jesus speaks of the devil, or Satan, and demons with some frequency.  What does this mean?

In the language of the New Testament, the devil literally means “divisive obstacle”[4] and satan means “accuser.”  What is symbolized here is a kind of prosecuting attorney placing divisive obstacles in the way of our communion with God.  Interestingly, in John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is given the title of the “Paraclete,” which means “advocate” or attorney for the defense, defender of victims.[5]  The devil, then, is a personification of what René Girard describes as a “self-organizing system”[6] and James Alison as the “governing principle”[7] of human culture. 

In John’s Gospel, satan is called a murderer from the beginning and the father of lies, which is to say that human culture in its origin is founded on violence that is dishonestly justified as necessary sacrifice.[8] Jesus’ execution as an innocent victim reveals the sacrificial violence upon which human culture is based, and triumphs over it by unmasking the lie.  We can no longer pretend not to know what we know. 

The temptation story shows us in narrative form how human culture turns God’s good gifts into obstacles, distorting our desire for them into violent rivalry with God rather than peaceful obedience to God.  The irony is that Jesus, by allowing God to peacefully constitute his consciousness, is actually enabled to become the bread of life because, in his teaching, he feeds us with God’s word; he becomes, in his death, the king of kings, who rules through serving God alone; he becomes the Temple, the place where we meet God, because, in his refusal to test God, he recognizes life is a gift, and not ours to squander.[9] 

During his wilderness retreat, Jesus engages the deep, interior work of identifying the demonic cultural messages he has internalized, and refusing to allow them to run his life anymore.  In my own retreat experiences, I’ve uncovered a few such messages myself.  You may recognize some of them as well:

·      I must be perfect to be loved
·      If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me
·      I can’t depend on anyone other than myself
·      Money is the measure and store of value
·      Order depends upon violence
·      Only that which can be seen and measured is real

Lent is a time set aside to wrestle with the devil, to let go of the lies we’ve internalized, so that we can receive our identity and values from God.  Lent is a time to rediscover that

The Spirit’s desire, as Jesus taught, is for our deeper common life in God through our individual deepening.  That deepening is shape by our graced willingness to embrace the radiant Love shown us through all the fragments of our lives, through all our experiences and options.  In that process we find ourselves loosening our grip on anything that would separate us from realizing that Love as the heart of who we truly are and the heart of all creation.[10]


[1] Luke 4:1-2.
[2] Tilden Edwards, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), p. viii.
[3] Mark Davis makes this point forcefully in his translation of the passage at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/02/twice-led-not-fed-well-read.html.
[4] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p. 158.
[5] René Girard, “Satan” in James Wilson, ed., The Girard Reader (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 201.
[6] Girard, p. 202.
[7] Alison, p. 156-157.
[8] John 8:44.
[9] Alison, p. 159.
[10] Edwards, p. viii.

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