Every phrase and every sentence
is an end and a beginning,
Every poem is an epitaph – epitaph, as on a gravestone.
Any action is a step to the block, to the fire,
down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
Temptation In The Wilderness
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:
‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”
11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
We live in an age that plays loose with facts. It’s the devil’s playground. From Genesis forward, the modus operandi of evil is to question the veracity of God, and the results can be devastating. If Truth does certainly set us free, Truth untethered leaves us in bondage. We see this interwoven throughout creation, and the coup de gras is always leveled at the imago Dei – the image of God which is the essence of man.
Speaking of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Ken Kovacs said in his book Out of the Depths:
The temptation is real in this story—and it’s serious. These are not trivial amusements trying to lull Jesus away from his work. He’s being tempted by desire, materialism, tempted by power, tempted by influence and glory, tempted by religion. He’s being tempted with an alternative narrative for his life, “If you are the Son of God….” If… Does Jesus know that he’s the Son of God? Is this what he’s really wrestling with in the wilderness? And if he consents, if he claims this identity, accepts this power, what then? How does one then live with such an identity, how does one make use of such power?
Who did God create you to be? Has you journey to that discovery taken you through a wilderness?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
D I G D E E P E R
(1888–1965), poet and critic. Born in St Louis, Missouri, he was educated at the Smith Academy, St Louis, Harvard (1906–9 and again 1911–13), the *Sorbonne (1910–11), and Merton College, Oxford (1914–15). He taught for a short time in Highgate Grammar School, London, and worked for Lloyds Bank; from this period his main interests appear to have been literary. Assistant editor of The Egoist from 1917 to 1919 and a frequent contributor to The Athenaeum, in 1922 he became the first editor of The Criterion, which he made a leading organ of literary expression until it ceased in 1939. In 1925 he joined the board of Faber, the publisher. He received many honours, including the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for literature (both in 1948).
Brought up in the American *Unitarian tradition, Eliot passed through a period of agnosticism reflected in his earlier poetry, e.g. Prufrock (1917) and Poems 1920 (1920). The expression of his sense of the emptiness of life reached its climax in The Waste Land (1922) and is also seen in The Hollow Men (1925). These early poems rejected the poetical tradition as it had developed in England since the 18th cent. and found inspiration in the 17th-cent. *Metaphysical poets and the 19th-cent. French symbolists. In 1927 Eliot was baptized in the parish church at Finstock, Oxon, and in 1928 he declared his viewpoint to be ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and *anglo-catholic in religion’ (Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes). Henceforth much of his poetry, culminating in Four Quartets (1935–42), expressed his religious search, his struggle with faith and doubt, and his attempt to find fresh meaning in tradition; here he turned notably to *Dante, as well as to such mystics as St *John of the Cross and *Julian of Norwich. His influence as a poet was immense. His attempts at poetical drama were less successful, but also sought to communicate something of the dilemmas of faith, explicitly in Murder in the Cathedral (1935; written for the *Canterbury Festival of that year), but no less genuinely in his later plays, The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). He was also influential as a critic; many of his early essays were published in Selected Essays (1932; 3rd edn., enlarged, 1951), and his later essays collected in On Poetry and Poets (1957) and To Criticize the Critic (1965). He was deeply interested in the social implications of Christianity and discussed these in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1948).
For more on his work Four Quartets see HERE
Desert Fathers and Mothers
This was a third- and fourth-century movement of Egyptian and Syrian Christians who left cities and villages to live in the desert. They were inspired by the wilderness formation of such biblical exemplars as Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, and also of contemporaries such as Antony, whose fame helped spread this populist movement. While some individuals were drawn to self-glorification through excesses in self-denial, most participated in shared mentoring and worship, and some joined nascent monastic communities.
The movement was partly a reaction to the perceived decadence of the age and the moral laxness of the church after becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. Their response was a radical (from Lat. radix, meaning “root”) call for a return to the core fundamentals of Christian faith: repentance, prayer, fasting, silence, and compassion. In going to the desert, many felt they followed Christ’s command to “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.… Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
The appeal of this austere countercultural movement swept across all levels of society, attracting men and women, rich and poor alike, scholars and illiterate, young and old. By AD 346 there were choices in the desert: one might opt for the eremitic life (to live alone as a hermit) or the cenobitic life (to live in community). The vast majority of the desert fathers and mothers were laity, not clergy. Living in caves or simple handmade huts, they soon attracted others, like John Cassian from Scythia, who observed the lives of the desert teachers and their disciples and wrote of their experience. This resulted in a new literary genre: the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) and the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Vitae Patrum). While sections of the Vitae Patrum are hagiographical, the Apophthegmata Patrum are probably very close to the actual wisdom of the desert as shared at the time—simple aphorisms and stories that have retained a freshness and wisdom throughout the centuries.
The movement may appear similar in its practices to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, in which disciples gathered for spiritual guidance at the feet of a guru or Zen master. Yet it is not entirely so. While these Christian disciples would approach an abba (old man) or amma (old woman) to ask for “a word,” there was never any hidden, esoteric teaching imparted to a chosen few. Often the healing ministry of Christ was continued as the hungry, the poor, and the possessed came to the desert for help and intercessory prayer. Sometimes scholars might approach an illiterate monk for “a word,” or the sick reach out for a healing touch; a mayor might approach a woman of poverty for “a word,” and so on. The characteristic dynamic was one person seeking God’s presence, speaking to another person seeking the same.
The movement cohered in a shared commitment to the discipline and purity of leaving all to follow Jesus, rather than around any one elaborate doctrinal system. Nevertheless, the movement was thoroughly Nicene in its beliefs, the great Antony himself on occasion leaving solitude to publicly defend orthodoxy. It was a lean spirituality of the one thing; asceticism helped strip away all that was superficial without sacrificing orthodoxy itself.
Hesychia (silence) was practiced in order to hear God’s voice, in the spirit of the biblical exhortation to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). This was not to be simply a stubborn clamping shut of one’s lips, but rather expectant waiting and humble watching. As John Chryssavgis has explained, such “silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence.” Sleeplessness also helped one watch for Jesus. Fasting allowed one to be fed by every word that proceeds from God. Prayer was not scheduled activity, but continual striving toward God. Like the spiritual journey itself, it was that toward which one should always strive; though not always easy, it was always worth the sacrifice. As Amma Syncletica noted, “In the beginning, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result.” Yet common sense was the byword, preventing pride in one’s own accomplishments: “If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up to heaven, take him by the foot, and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him” (Chryssavgis).
The desert fathers and mothers recognized the natural ebb and flow of the spiritual life. There is a social dimension, a time for mentoring and guidance, but there is a necessary time for solitude and discipline too. The Sayings show the teachers conferring among themselves, growing through dialogue and discussion, and then withdrawing into solitude and silence. The metaphor of withdrawing “into the desert” to be with Jesus has been crucial in the history of spiritual formation. The sayings and lives of the Fathers show how these Christians tried to live the Christian life with integrity and radical simplicity without being compromised by their culture, nor forgetting their commitment to care for one another. They continue to influence many diverse writers, from Roman Catholics Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen to Orthodox John Chryssavgis to evangelical Shane Claiborne.
For Further Reading:
D. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966); J. Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert (2003); T. Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (1970); Y. Nomura and H. Nouwen, Desert Wisdom (2000); B. Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers (1981); idem, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975). Kelby Cotton, “Desert Fathers and Mothers,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 395–397.