Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Plagues and Perils: the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the Paradoxes of the Desert"
Scripture: Psalm 46
Early in my time as a pastor at the ripe old age of 27, I found myself exhausted from the demands of ministry. My district superintendent, the pastor’s pastor in the United Methodist system said to me, “You are the bent-over woman,” referring to the affliction of a follower of Jesus, as I sat in her office with my head nearly on the table in front of me. “I am ordering you to take the rest of the week off.”
And so I did. At the end of the week, Elizabeth and I decided to take a drive. We had no particular destination. We lived in Lawrence, Kansas at the time, about an hour west of Kansas City. So almost every time we went somewhere, we headed east on I-70 to Kansas City. This time we headed north into the golden expanse of the Great Plains in the fall.
As the land nears the Missouri River, it begins to become hilly, and the closer the river gets, the more dramatic the swells. After a little over an hour’s drive, we came upon the town of Atchison, set on the bluffs over the river. As we approached, we saw a cross, rising high on one of the highest hills. It became a quest to find what was beneath the cross.
Through winding streets and climbing hills, we finally came to the end of the street that ended on the highest hill. And there it was. Mount Saint Scholastica, a Benedictine monastery of monks, women who had created a separateness for the life of the spirit in the midst of a very busy world.
The Benedictines are one of the oldest orders and draw their patterns and way of faith from Benedict. Benedict was a sixth century cleric who was instrumental in establishing monasteries and the monastic way of life across Europe over the next several centuries. Scholastica was Benedict’s twin sister.
But the Benedictine patterns of prayer throughout the day and even night and the drawing away from the busyness of the world did not originate with them. Benedict drew heavily from the practices and wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers.
The desert mothers and fathers were Christians who lived in the third to fifth centuries in Egypt and the lower Mediterranean. Often called ammas and abbas, they left the cities of their region for a variety of reasons: epidemics, political corruption, social upheaval, persecutions and later the theological debates within Christianity. Sound familiar?
But their main motivation in going to the desert was a desire to get closer to God, to remove any distraction or obstruction as they sought perfect union with the source of all life. Though most of the preserved stories of these desert monastics are of men, it is estimated that women who left the cities for the desert outnumbered the men two to one.
For many of us, this time of solitude in our homes, and limited social interaction, anxiety about social injustice and fear of even hoping for change, and in some cases the loss of those very dear to us, has led to a desert time. The handrail of faith stretching back millennia connects us to these seekers who left the cities and went to the desert. Now this is not exactly like our current situation, history tells us they chose their vocation and location in the desert. But did they? Is a required escape really a choice?
And so, they like we, find ourselves in these very quiet places, and certainly there is a new kind of opportunity for the deepening of the spirit. Do the ammas and abbas of the desert have anything to help us through our own desert time?
Well for one thing, they can help us understand silence. The desert mothers and fathers left the cities seeking the silence of the desert. But the reality seems to have been that instead of sustained silence and just the absence of noise, they learned the contours of silence, what it offers, what it says, how it shows up.
One of the desert abbas, Abba Poemen, offered this wisdom:
“A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent. That is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”
The paradox they found in the desert was that silence wasn’t a guaranteed path to nirvana. It may have been an important condition to hear God, but the inner dialogue, whether it was condemning of others or judgmental of the self, could drown out the voice of the divine. It was just as important to maintain an inner silence, and perhaps more even more important than an outer silence. And the consciousness of thought and presence that produced speech was an important dimension when silence was broken.
And history also shows us that by and large, isolation wasn’t part of this desert scene. Though our picture of these persons is a hermit’s shack surrounded by golden sand, the truth is the desert Christians often lived in groupings, some even large enough to be called monasteries. Most people need other people, and in their spiritual quest they found that groups and communities were more helpful than complete solitude, even if their personal dwellings were somewhat socially distant.
Where they sought refuge from the chaos and violence of the world, those who fled to the desert came face to face with their own worst demons. In the desert were the same quick tempers, or propensities to substitute frantic work for measured spiritual discipline, or judgmentalisms, or petty conflicts. The desert became a mirror of the soul, reflecting weaknesses and strengths, struggles and longings. What they found was that they met themselves in the desert and it was no utopia.
What many are finding during our own desert time is that long held and unhelpful habits have come to fore. Painful and difficult places able to be avoided before are now fully present. What we realize is that where previously we have may counted a measure of success in our attempts to avoid pain and loss, the desert invites us to face and befriend them.
The paradox of the desert is that what we may have been seeking to avoid was actually covering something useful, beautiful or even full of blessing. What we thought we knew may have served its purpose and the hint of new knowledge calls us into the unknown. The expanse of the desert with its shifting sands beckons us to be. To watch and pray. To let go.
Another story from the desert: One day some monks came to see Anthony of Egypt, the most renowned hermit of his day. With them was Abbot Joseph. Anthony chose a text from Scripture and beginning with the youngest monk, asked each one what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one, the revered teacher said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all, he said to Abbot Joseph, “How do you explain this saying?” The abbot replied, “I do not know.” Then Anthony said, “Indeed, Abbot Joseph has found the way. For he has said, “I do not know.” [i. Wisdom Story taken from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers as told by Sister Lillian Harrington, “Pilgrim Minister” in Atchison Blue.]
Ultimately what the desert mothers and fathers were after was a closer relationship with God. They felt God’s invitation to let go of absolutely everything that was a barrier to their own goals and God’s call in their life. This desert time contains that same invitation for us. We are invited to let go of absolutely everything that is a barrier to God’s call in our lives.
This letting go is the work. And unlike the image of pristine desert silence we may have, the desert is messy, its often really hot, and takes even more discipline than typical modern day life. The truth is that control is an illusion and that God’s reach and vision is far beyond our capacity to achieve or fully understand. But we can listen. We can follow. We can carve away defenses and distractions to find the blessing in being.
The desert mothers and fathers learned that one way through the discipline required in this life was to pray the Psalms throughout the day. Psalm 139 encourages 8 periods of prayer in a 24 hour period, one in the night and seven others from just before dawn until the setting of the sun. The Benedictines adopted this practice. Throughout this series on plagues and perils, I’ll be sending out two Psalms each week, one to pray upon your rising and the other to pray before you retire. I’ll hope you’ll be a part of our community supporting each other and staying close to God in this way. Of course, if you’d like to go beyond those two prayers and pray a different Psalm each day and more often that morning and night, please do so!
The nuns of Mount St. Scholastica welcomed me in that day many years ago, greeting me, a stranger, as Christ as is their rule. I found a home with them volunteering in their monastery library once a week. The freedom to just be and serve without expectation was a blessing to me, and the opportunity to pray with them, to be in worship without having to lead, was a welcome respite.
One week a visiting friend from out of town accompanied me on my weekly journey north to Atchison. As we drove, I said something to the effect of how I could see why women chose this life and imagined that anyone would enjoy living in the monastery. Well, the look on her face told me everything—there was no question in her mind—she would never choose to live in a monastery.
Now I know that it is true, the monastic life is not for everyone. It requires the discipline of the most dedicated athlete. But sometimes the monastic life chooses us, and we are drawn through peril or plague into the desert place.
Many Christians today are searching for more spiritual depth, and sometimes believe we have to go outside of our tradition to find it, whether that be through Buddhist meditation, the learning of the Jewish kabbalah, or an exploration into indigenous religions. These are important learnings and can help us see our own tradition more clearly, but the truth is that the mystical and paradoxical are in the teachings of the desert mothers and fathers, and the challenge and transcendence we often yearn for can be found in our very own scriptures. In hearing or reading the teachings of our foremothers and forefathers in faith, in praying the Psalms or reading any scripture, sit with these words. Let them speak to you as you seek to remove distraction and obstruction between you and God, as you let go of certainty and control, as the desert mothers and fathers did. I pray that there you will discover the timeless peace and joy of our tradition. Amen.
Order of Worship
The Community Gathers
Prelude: Solfeggietto C.P.E Bach - Juliet Sisk-Hilton
Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Invitation to Stephen Ministry - Becky Proehl
Opening Hymn: "Blessed Be Your Name" Worship & Song #3002 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Michele Arreola-Burl
Invocation - Clark Kellogg
To Hear the Word
Scripture Reading: Psalm 46 - Orion Lacey
Children’s Time - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Society" - Judy Kriege & Travis Pratt
Message: “Plagues and Perils: the Desert Mothers and Fathers” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment
Hymn of Response: "Come and Find the Quiet Center" The Faith We Sing #2028 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Prayers of the People - Maria Gallo
Special Music: "Steel Away" - Eiji Miura
The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) - Kim Hraca
Offering Our Tithes and Gifts - Mike Wood
Offertory Music: “Hallelujah” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Danica Elliott
To Disperse in Love and Compassion
Prayer of Dedication - Mike Wood
Closing Hymn: "All Who Hunger" The Faith We Sing #2126 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Rick Beeman
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Toccata in C major" comp. Bach - Rev. Jerry Asheim