Sunday, February 14, 2016

Self Examination in the Desert of our Lives

(Lent is a great opportunity to grow our contemplative non-violent lives - even when we don't think we have one! I intend to use my blog to reflect on the invitation from God to live more deeply into a contemplative non-violent life which I want to respond to more and more. The plan is to write a reflection on Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent and during Holy Week. I invite you to follow if you wish. With each entry I will suggest one prayer practice and one action that I will engage in and offer to you as a possibility. Blessings for a holy Lent.)

The first full week of Lent kicks off with Jesus taking a trip into the desert and the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent asks us to go along for the ride. Actually, the Good News that Luke (cf. 4:1-2) tells us is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by that same Spirit in to the wilderness where he would be tempted by the devil for forty days.

Would that we were all so open to this form of self examination! You see, in order to live a contemplative non-violent life as daughters and sons of God we must be willing to face our demons and the place to do that is in the desert of our lives, the wilderness of our souls. 

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the great proponents of non-violence. The idea of non-violence was not fully articulated during his lifetime (c.mid- 200's - c.mid-300's) or for many centuries later, but the spiritual work that he did in the Egyptian desert is work that everyone interested in a contemplative life of non-violent discipleship must engage in. Anthony, the father of Christian monasticism, is perhaps most famous for his twenty year long wrestling matches with his demons. 

Now in different eras of Christian thought, these demons have sometimes been imagined literally - hideous little monsters with horns and grotesque features. At other times, these demons have been imagined as psycho/spiritual issues to be worked through. Whatever the case, demons are real and we each have to confront our own demons if we wish to live a life of faithful discipleship.

Our demons come in many shapes and sizes. For some of us it is the same one over and over again. For others these demons come in various guises. The goal of demons - again, whether these are psycho/spiritual or actual manifestations, is to keep us separated from God. And so, in order to have a fuller relationship with God, we must examine ourselves to understand just what our own particular demons are. 

I believe this is why the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness.  Before he began his public ministry, Jesus had to confront the demons within him. That may be a difficult sentence for some to read, but Jesus - being fully human  - had to endure all that we humans endure. In studying Luke's Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus we can come to understand what at least three of Jesus' demons were.

The first demon Jesus had to face was the temptation to control his own fate. Having fasted for forty days, Luke tells us that Jesus was famished. The demon tempts Jesus to turn stone to bread. God has given Jesus enough to survive this fast and yet just as when the Hebrews, while wandering in the desert, did not trust that God would give them enough manna to survive, Jesus is tempted to "take control of his own life." But he resists. Jesus overcomes this demon by reminding himself that he does not live by bread alone but rather by loving faithfulness of God. It is God's blessing of his life that gives Jesus sustenance. 

Next, the demon tempts Jesus to power. The demon offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if only he would worship the devil. But again, Jesus reminds himself that only God is to be worshiped and that no idol, no matter what it seems to offer is worth sacrificing our relationship with God. 

Finally, the demon tempts Jesus to the inflate his own ego. Throw yourself down, the demon says to Jesus, for Scripture says you will  not be harmed. But Jesus reminds himself that we are not to tempt the Lord our God. In other words, let God be God and remember the nature of the relationship. 

The Valley of Desolation in South Africa

We all have our own demons. They make take the form of a lack of self-worth or perhaps an inflated sense of worth. Perhaps they are an addiction, a fear, greed, lust, hopelessness, anger, a desire to commit violence against ourselves or others. The list is endless. But the work of confronting our demons is among the most important spiritual work we can do. The process deepens our contemplative life and allows for us to live more deeply into "being the change" we need to be to live a non-violent life of discipleship.

Sometimes going to a desert or a mountaintop or a retreat house can be a way of clearing our mind and our schedule to open us up to confronting these demons. But this is not necessary. In fact, we can begin to confront those demons over our morning coffee, on our commute to work, in the silence of the morning, or as we prepare to go to bed at night.  

So, here is one suggestion for prayer and a one suggestion for action for this first full week of Lent that I am going to commit to. I invite you to join me:

Prayer: This week, let's use our time of silence to reflect on one demon that we have not confronted or need to confront in a deeper way. Let's ask God to help us face that which may be preventing us from enjoying a fuller relationship with God. 

Action: Let's then take what we have discovered about ourselves and talk to someone about this issue who might be able to help us to deepen our relationship with God. This person or group might be a spiritual director, a therapist, a twelve-step group, a trusted friend. 

This is very difficult work and cannot possibly be completed in one week. But it only takes a minute to begin the process Confronting our demons is work that will extend beyond this first week of Lent, but there is no time like this moment to begin this work for it can lead to a flowering of our life and our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. 

Blessings for a holy Lent!

Peace be upon you. 


  1. Thank you, Jim. I have long believed that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but I had not made the leap to him having his own demons. It is obvious to me, now, and I am heartened as I wrestle my own. It can be easy to forget that EVERYONE has them--especially when they fall into the category of my "character defects," in 12 step language. "Welcome to the human race," I often say to myself when it feels like the defects are piling up. Nice to know I have the fully human, fully divine company of Jesus...and yours. Thanks for writing this blog and inviting us to join your Lenten wilderness sojourn,

  2. Thanks Br. James. It is uplifting to be invited by you to continually point our journey into a deeper relationship with God ... everywhere. I love Teresa of Avila's quotes from the Interior Castle which I think are spot on your article, and I think describes a part of Jesus' journey as he models for us what must be done, as she reflects on the significance of self-knowledge in spiritual growth, “It is very important to be prepared and to have understood ourselves beforehand”. Self-knowledge, often gained through life’s trials, requires honesty with self which is truth, as she says, “Test us, Lord – for You know the truth – so that we may know ourselves”. As we know from the study of Psychology, this can be easier said than done. Teresa says, “Terrible trials are suffered because we don’t understand ourselves, and that which isn’t bad at all but good we think is a serious fault. For the most part, all the trials and disturbances come from our not understanding ourselves”. Acceptance of reality (we have demons), pursuit of truth (find our demons), and growth (healing of our demons) is 1 way to grow with and deeper within God, and certainly God is helping us in ways we can't imagine which for me is evidenced during those times I just shake my head in amazement and say "Thanks". Thank you for a great theme to contemplate this Lent and foster our repentance and turning toward God. As I contemplate this, it seems those demons are "sore" because as we get close to them or touch them, quite a reaction can happen. I know you're familiar with the "tenacious" demon imagery the Desert Mothers and Fathers paint. And when I combine this with the idea that, somehow, all is rooted in God, I face a challenge - cast demons out as we hear in some parables, or live in the Divine image and show compassion and love towards the demons, contemplating them with non-judgment, helping them to heal and helping us become whole ... or deal with them another way. Looking forward to your future blog entries this Lent.