In my last blog I talked about the appeal in our day of the Desert Fathers. As one observer stated, “The flight to the desert represented both a protest and an affirmation – a protest against a decadent and overly institutionalized ecclesiastical body and a restatement of the gospel teaching to fit the changed conditions of the times.” The movement into the desert was not so much to escape problems but to engage them. The desert actually became a place of combat. Those who went into the desert considered themselves ” bloodless martyrs” and “athletes of God.” They felt they had to escape a worldly church and a corrupt society, while facing the greatest battle of all, that is, the battle of the soul.
The desert was a place of solitude. Solitude suggests Henri Nouwen, “is the furnace of transformation.” In the desert many things that we believe are vital for life are stripped away. It is just you, God and the desert. Y0u have to face your real self. This is the battle. Most men feel from such battles. Nouwen observes, “in solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”
For the men who read this blog, a flight into the desert is neither realistic nor necessary. But there is a real sense in which we need solitude, that time alone with ourselves in the presence of God to examine how attachment and plugged in we are to the world around us. We lose our real sense of who we are in God, because of the constant need and pressure to be someone other then who God sees us to be. We live life through the presentable and acceptable veneer of the false self, which is a product of our own making. We need the desert experience to see how conformed we are to this world. Our focus is so often on what I have, who am I, and what do others think of me. This is all self making. It comes so naturally that we forget who we really are.
A man has to come to the place where he will fight for his heart. It will take a desert experience to bring us to the place of vulnerabilty, that allows us to let go of the attachments to our false self. Abba Antony, one of the desert father once said, “The man who abides in solitude and in quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles – those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight – the battle of the heart.”
My encouragement to the men who read this blog, is to find a group of men who will “fight for your heart.” Join a group of guys who want to do the work of dying to the practices of the false self, so that they can find their true self in Christ. I find the principles of AA give permission for men to fight for each other’s hearts. In an AA group men know that they have to escape the temptations of the culture and find life in God. They know what the desert is life. “The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ” (Nouwen). An athlete for God is will to do the hard work of “soul care,” coming to grips with the real condition of the inner life. Listen to Paul’s words in I Cor 9:26-27, “I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself” (The Message).