Monday, March 2, 2009

Reflection for 1 March 2009

Another faculty member was supposed to do today's reflection for SLU's Lenten website (, but he forgot, so I threw something together on the quick. It's not particularly reflective, but maybe there's something salvageable in there...

The students in my Theological Foundations class just finished reading Into the Wild, and as part of their reflection on the book, I had them take about half an hour or so of “unplugging” from all the people and devices that are part of their normal lives – cell phones, IPods, Facebook, and so on. Most of them in their papers commented on how difficult it was to not have all those distractions around, and a number of them said that too much solitude simply cannot be a good thing, that the weeks and months that Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Into the Wild, spent alone in Alaska must have done harm to his personality. They concluded almost to a person that they could not imagine spending weeks or months away from human contact, and in truth, I have rarely gone more than a week without speaking to anyone, even on silent retreats. Next week I will be taking a group of students on a spring break trip to the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, where I used to live and work, and we plan to take a “desert day” as part of cultivating the spiritual life of the place. Still, even that one day is pretty tame compared to the lives of many of the greats of the Biblical tradition who spent forty days (i.e., a long time) in the wilderness, away from other people: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus. The paradox of the desert in the Bible is that while it is the place where demons live, it is also the place of encounter with God: it is in the desert that Israel learns how to be God’s people, where Jesus grows into his experience of being called beloved Son. Similarly, the monastic tradition in Christianity began with people escaping to the desert, the eremos in Greek, from which we get the word “hermit,” and the literature of those desert fathers and mothers abounds with the struggle with demons, whether presented psychologically or metaphysically, which led to wisdom and humility.
Today’s reading from 1 Peter uses the unusual image of the eight people in the ark being “saved through water.” We would tend to think of the flood as a cataclysm, a massive destruction of life rather than the occasion of the salvation of those eight survivors, but imagining those weeks and months on the ark, living in chaos (literally: tehom in Hebrew means both “sea” and “chaos”), I can believe that surviving such a harsh environment would be both an encounter with the demonic and with God. SLU’s own Dr. Belden Lane, a professor in the Theological Studies department, writes in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes about the capacity of barren and harsh environments to strip away the falsehoods of our lives, and psychologist Jordan Peterson says that “The place where you least want to go is the place where you find everything you need” – it is precisely in facing our demons, those things which most frighten us, that we find the living God. While none of us may well spend forty days in the desert this Lent, we are called back to asceticism in the best sense of the word – not self-punishment, but discipline, like athletes in training, consciously refraining from the “comfort foods” that feed our egos. As Abby Braun pointed out in her beautiful and compelling reflection on Friday, the goal is right relationship: not to get away from people, not a sense of superiority, but precisely the attempt to nakedly encounter God, free from the demands of a society that favors conformity over prophecy, to break through the prison of the false self and emerge into compassion for the world.

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