Three Friends and the Desert
There were once three Christian friends who had reputations for working hard at whatever it was they put their minds to. They all took seriously the call of the Gospel to live a charitable life, and each chose to express this call in their own way. The first friend became a peacemaker, striving to mediate disputes and encourage the mending of fractured relationships. The second friend chose to become a physician, laboring to care for and heal the sick and infirm. The third friend left the noise and frenetic activity of the city altogether, and made a home in the desert to focus on quiet prayer and stillness. After a number of years, the first friend became weary, burdened by the endless cycle of violence and vengeance that plagued the world. The peacemaker, then, sought out the healer, who also was overwhelmed by the extent of world’s brokenness. No matter how many people were healed, many more became sick. Both friends felt that their pursuits, however noble and charitable, had been in vain. So, the two friends went to the desert to visit the third, seeking guidance, begging for an answer to their struggles. The three friends sat together in silence for a time, then the desert dweller poured water into a bowl and asked them to look at the water. The water danced back and forth in the bowl, splashing against the sides, rippling and swirling. They sat awhile longer. Then the third friend said, “Look how still the water is now.” When they looked down again they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror. The desert dweller said to the peacemaker and the healer: “It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings” (Harmless vii).
This story is believed to have circulated widely in fourth-century Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia among a unique group of Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Like the third friend in the story, these desert Christians responded to the Gospel by leaving the conveniences and distractions of mainstream society behind in order to better know themselves and God. St. Antony, one of the first and best known Desert Christians, credits Matthew’s account of Jesus’s charge to the rich young man to “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” for his decision to move to the desert. It sounds extreme to modern ears, and it is. It was extreme back in the fourth century as well. And yet, there is wisdom here.
The story about the three friends has something important to say to us today. You and I would most likely identify with the peacemaker or the healer. We are followers of Christ who have chosen to express our faith by doing charitable work in the world, whatever our vocation may be. Instead of identifying with the bit about selling our possessions, we tend to find inspiration from Jesus’s words about caring for the least, the lonely, and the lost. But, what happens if–well, when–when we become overwhelmed by the endless work there is to do? Like the peacemaker and the healer discovered, the world’s plights are inexhaustible. Even Jesus reminds us that we will always have the poor with us–a truth that goes against the grain of our can-do, fix-it attitude. The Christian tradition tells us that there is also great value in practicing stillness and solitude. Not that it trumps an active life of ministry, rather it compliments the work we do in the world. We can labor for peace. We can care for the sick. But we must also sit for awhile.
In today’s passage from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples fully engaged in an active, worldly ministry. They had been sent in twos, casting out unclean spirits, anointing with oil, and healing the sick. They gather around Jesus to give a report of their travels, and he says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” It’s important to recognize that Jesus isn’t talking about our modern concept of rest and relaxation here. He’s not encouraging the disciples to go to a movie or take the kids to Disneyland–nothing that would fill the space in their lives that is freed up by resting from worldly ministry. The space–the emptiness–is, in fact, exactly what Jesus is hoping his disciples will discover. It’s also notable that the Greek word Jesus uses for “deserted place” is the same word we find translated as “wilderness” in Mark’s Gospel: “A voice shouting in the wilderness,” or “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by satan.” A “deserted place,” or “the wilderness” is where God’s people go to encounter God.
If you have ever tried to simply be quiet for awhile you know just how illusive that emptiness can be. Perhaps you’ve tried a spiritual practice like centering prayer or other forms of meditation. You know that as soon as you try to quiet your mind you are inundated with innumerable thoughts. Often the thoughts are random and harmless, and at other times they are powerful–even troubling. We may be surprised to find that we are angry or sad. We may discover that we are craving something–attention, recognition, or maybe a quick glance at our phones, or another cup of coffee. This is what the story I began with is getting at. When we first stop, our minds are like that newly poured bowl of water, splashing about like waves on a stormy sea. But if we sit awhile, the water settles and we can begin to see our reflection emerge in the stillness. We can recognize patterns in the chatter of our minds and get better at letting the unhelpful thoughts go. And, eventually, within the emptiness that we have uncovered we discover God. The one within whom we live and move and have our being.
How long has it been since you have “come away” to a deserted place all by yourselves, a place where there truly are no distractions? No COVID statistics to pull up on your phone. No Netflix shows to binge. No Amazon.com carts to fill with items you don’t need. No thoughts, even, to think. Nothing. Only stillness. Only quiet. Only emptiness. Only God. Jesus commended this practice to his early disciples, and he commends it to us as well. But I have to warn you. When you choose to put aside all the enticing distractions our minds delight in, God begins to work on us in surprising new ways, and what emerges is love–love for others whom we may have been avoiding but need to reconnect with, renewed love for the Gospel work we do in the world, and even love for ourselves–awareness of our faults, and then forgiveness. All it takes is a prayer cushion, a chair, even a pew. The desert awaits.
Proper 11, Year B
Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.