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The 40 Days in the Desert

I don't have an answer to this question. That said, I think sometimes what matters is coming up with the question.

So, the season of Lent commemorates the 40 days that Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef spent in the desert of Palestine. He removed himself from the comforts of civilization, such as they were in the 1st century in Roman-occupied-Palestine amongst the working classes, and went into the desert to pray, find his way, talk to God. Yes, he fasted. That's a common way for hermits, shamans, priests, the devout of almost any faith to achieve a state which promotes visions--of totems, of burning wheels, of whatever imagery, message, or other wisdom the divine choses to open the door to. Yes, he endured privation--because it is a common practice in a retreat to separate oneself from the distractions of things in order to focus. But he didn't go into the desert to fast. He didn't go into the desert to feel deprived. He went into the desert in search of wisdom, in search of insight, in search of God.

So why is it that when Lent comes around it's all about the fast, about the solemn colors, about the privation, and not about the search? Not about seeking a gift? Not about opening the mind?

On Ash Wednesday, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City opened her doors at 5:30 AM. Until after 8 that night, without pause, the priests, deacons, and communal ministers distributed ashes to the faithful. We Catholics are very good at counting heads. By the end of the day, more than 60,000 went through the line of that one, single church. And historically, more Catholics go across a church threshold on Ash Wednesday than any other day. A day when the injunction is "Remember thou art dust, and to dust thou wilt return."

Why is it about the pain? Even when the priests and ministers enjoin us to embrace the search, to give to others, to open the heart and mind to insight and divine wisdom, why do so many of us reach for the lash, the hair shirt, the merciless pain of the desert of trial? God is also in the finely crafted meal, the perfume in the hair, an oil massage of the feet, good conversation, and a full night's rest in a a soft bed. Isn't it about the search?



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)
Might bo off topic a bit...
These are most excellent questions.
I would feel much more trusting of organized religion if the search, the faith and finding the joy were the point.

I have been to churches where they were the point. I have not been to Catholic Mass in a long time. I was raised Jewish, but have always been interested in the similarities in different sects and religions.
Mar. 4th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
Let us, for a moment, imagine that this is a world that is exactly how it is.

Let us consider the Club Gyms. Places where individuals can buy a membership and be granted the opportunity to enter the walls of the Gym as members. Places where members can gain guidance and help in building up personal strength and health. Places where people can go for guidance on diet and habits to encourage more healthfulness in themselves.

Then, let us consider why it is that so many health clubs and gyms offer such low starting memberships. Those who show up for a few weeks over the first six months are still work something for the Fifty Bucks they toss into the pot. And those few who continue on at Thirty Bucks every month keep the system going.

Those who show up to pay the first dues get us beyond the fact that even the most faithful core cannot spare enough to keep us providing the service we provide?

If we have to use advertising and guilt to get the bills paid, does that take something from the goodness we provide to those who stick to the program. Or are those who give and drop out benefiting in some unseen way by allowing those who will succeed to exceed any expectations?

Many hear the call and respond to it. Few make changes in their lives and go on to become new beacons to the path of healthiness.

Many of us hear the call that we are but dust, some of us work through that and make healthy choices because of that call, few grow each year. But this year is followed by next year. And next year is followed by the year thereafter.

We don't have to be popular. We don't have to be rewarded. We only have to answer the call and follow it as best we can. Christianity is all about setting up a higher standard than we can ever reach and knowing that when we fail we will be allowed to fail.

We don't have that moment of leaning into the ashes and welcoming them as peace and release to the body and the person because we are enlightened... but because we are just human.

We are just dust. Unto dust we Shall return.

Meanwhile, we're going to do our damnedest to live every bloody moment and embrace every lovable bit we can find.

So, many of us take the ashes. Some of us follow the trail of ashes. Few of us find that our flowers grow better (or in new colors) after the ashes.

This is life.
Mar. 5th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
because this is so fresh in my mind...
...i think it comes down to what Paul and Luther termed the difference of "justification by grace through faith" and "justification by works".

faith in the modern era in particular is an extremely difficult thing to grasp, and what the rabbi would have understood as faith is as foreign to us now as neuropathology is to your average first year arts undergraduate.

but works... works, we understand. works are what we do, and if you want to get right into the crux of Pelagian heresy, we can talk about how humanity is convinced that works are what we do to merit God's grace, as if we can meet him halfway of our own volition, rather than accept that grace is God's unconditional gift whether we sin or not, whether we do works or not. but believingin that unconditional gift of love is something a lot of people can't grasp, so they fall back on the acts of worship, the "works of faith", because acts are tangible proof to most that "we are good people" or "good christians" - the proof is in the doing, moreso than the accepting and faith.

it took me a long time to get my head around the idea of justification in either the Pauline or Lutheran sense, but it makes a lot of sense to me now, both how it works in the theologies, and how it *doesn't* work in common modern (north american) faith praxis.
Mar. 5th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
well I think its just that most of the world is poor just getting by, you cant change your life by doing MORE or having more. But to see the divine you do have to change your life. ANd since you cant go up you gotta go down.

I do think that in the USA the prodestant hangover makes things even less we dont celabrate Carnivle or feasts or do anything to ballence the privation. we are culturally protestant even if individually we arnt.

OHOH if you havent seen "Fanny and Alexander" you must.

Mar. 5th, 2009 08:37 am (UTC)
Yes, it is; but if you look at the history of Christianity; the search has not been emphasized for the most of it. Large chunks of its history (and indeed even today for some) the faithful are *told* what to believe, they are not actively encouraged to do the philosophical/theological *heavy-lifting* that faith entails.

Everytime I have a disagreement with a fellow Protestant over literalist interpretations of the Bible (Yep, the Earth was created 6422 years ago, on a Friday...never mind all that pesky physical evidence He left laying around...), everytime I bump into idiotic conflict between sects of Christianity:

"Porthos: You know, it strikes me that we would be better employed wringing Milady's pretty neck than shooting these poor devils of Protestants. I mean, what are we killing them for? Because they sing psalms in French and we sing them in Latin?

Aramis: Porthos, have you no education? What do you think religious wars are all about"

...I must wonder if the Christian church (collectively) has failed its flock through not encouraging much more than recitation.

I will grant that Aquinas, Lewis, and Geisler (to name a few) don't make for light reading; but they seem to me to be as necessary as the Scriptures themselves.

We are entreated to "put on the mind of God"...and while we are incapable of doing so completely; how many try?

It is about the search; IMHO it doesn't end with a Christian's acceptance of Christ and Christian tenents; it begins.
Mar. 5th, 2009 10:11 am (UTC)
Why the pain
I am reminded of a scene in one of the first four episodes of the second season of The Tudors. You know the story so this shouldn't be a spoiler. Thomas Moore has gone to visit Katherine after Henry has dismissed her from court.

She talks about having known great joy and great sorrow and that she will chose great sorrow because in our joy we forget God but in our sorrow he is always with us.

Why are there no atheists in fox holes?

Why does the parent and child analogy work so well in religions?

When we are afraid we are more likely to seek or welcome support. When we are joyful we are more likely to credit ourselves and be able to stand on our own.

Why? I think its hardwired. I think its part of what makes us human. Needing/wanting comfort and/or company - human or divine - is part of who we are.

Hmmm...comfort = company...when two or more are gathered....

I don't see Lent as about the pain - I see it about stripping off the layers. Getting back to basics. I am Love. I am Dust. You are dust. When two or more of you are there, I am there. Love is there.

"Go into your room and close the door" isn't about privation. Its about shedding distraction. Gilded idols and sugar and crowds are distracting. Our focus can blur onto the gilt or the crowd. But in our room with the door closed, its just us. And our pains or joys. Where we can look at them, think about them.

Perhaps, within the Christian context, Rabbi Joshua and his followers gave us the first part - shed the distractions - and hoped that we would find our own ways to do so. As Yosh says above, the Church is good about repeating his words, not as publicly obvious about thinking about them. So much so the focus falls on the parts right there on the page we can emotionally connect with - and in Lent - that is the pain.

The Moravian church historian who preached for us on Sunday talked about how much Jesus goes through in only seven sentences in Mark's telling of the 40 days. From baptism to recognition to being driven into the desert to temptation to proclamation. In only seven sentences. That leaves a lot to us to envision and what we take away is "devil" and "temptation" or...pain. Why the pain? Perhaps because of the writings we've inherited that's the part easiest to hear or focus upon.

Ashes are also visible. Which is another reason for the 60,000 last Wed. But that's another train of thought, I'm sure. :)

Mar. 5th, 2009 10:33 am (UTC)
Re: Why the pain
Alas, there *are* some atheists in foxholes; though I note with dark amusement that they cling to their "faith" as strongly as we do ours...:) (And make no mistake the first principle of atheism is predicated solely upon faith, NOT knowledge.)
Mar. 5th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Why the pain
My father, raised Catholic, altar boy, parochial school, always said he lost his faith in a foxhole in Belgium.

Never quite an atheist, he became agnostic.
Mar. 5th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Why the pain
"Ashes are also visible. Which is another reason for the 60,000 last Wed. But that's another train of thought, I'm sure."

And, in fact, was half of the conversation I had with Duchezz Sunday after I came home from Mass, having gotten the statistics during the Homily. But that is a different issue, yes. And I have some theories about it, but not something I want to focus on now. ;-)
Mar. 5th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)
The Christian Church has had a very uneasy relationship with its Mysteries since at least Nicea, and generally seeks to demonize or marginalize gnosis that falls outside accepted limits. Look to the treatment of the Marian groups who are apparently seeking vision on a regular basis--we have a hotbed of Marianists around here, between Berkeley Springs and Emmitsburg, and a lot of them are being openly denounced by bishops.

One of the people I adore in this world is a man seeking to become a married Catholic Priest, with whom I discuss Christian Mystery a lot. Like the engagement of any Mystery tradition, huge amounts of personal discipline is necessary for the information imparted to mean anything. The Mormons routinely send their people out in search of their own visions, and it has resulted in over 230 splinter groups, because it becomes all too easy for someone to have a vision and decide that it applies to more than them.

The Catholics, and in fact most Christian sects are loathe to grant people a lot of latitude, probably because of that messy business with Luther. ;)
Mar. 5th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
No argument, but my question has to do more with congregants--notice that I said it happens even when the priests and pastors try to get the members to do it differently, focus differently, even modeling the behavior. Still the focus of the individual congregants seems to be on the negative. What is it that makes so many cling so hard to the painful part when there is at least as much teaching and institutional energy directed towards the search? I think it's a people focused question, and not really about the institutions.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )