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Forty days in the wilderness.
"THEN Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Who answered and said: It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple, And said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written: That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil left him; and behold angels came and ministered to him." Matthew 4:1-11
At the beginning of the Lent last year, I remarked to my Grandmother that it was an appropriate time for it. We were just waking up to the pandemic here in America, and it felt like a call from God to change our ways. Or at least it felt like a call for me to change my ways. In a sense, this whole stretch of time since last March has been a time of self-reflection, self-abnegation, and voluntary, or really involuntary, self-denial. The physical distancing so ubiquitous now took away many of the activities that I took pleasure in — moshing at punk concerts, hotboxing cars with stoner friends, grabbing beers with fellow grad students at Valhalla, the on-campus grad student run bar, after a long week of research. I've lived a monkish life in my pod downtown for the past year, although with not nearly the same amount of grace and patience as true monastics. All of us have suffered during this time of hardship, but hopefully we have also gained something from it.
The beginning to this Lenten season also feels appropriate. Ash Wednesday happened to fall in the midst of a week of widespread chaos in Houston. A catastrophic winter storm crippled the state of Texas and shut off power and water to more than half of my hometown. We are clearly living in interesting times. It is easy to obsess about the horrors occurring in the world at large, to feel that the weight of evil on our collective shoulders is far too much to bear. It can be satisfying to lean into the doom and gloom. Images of cleansing fire and sulfurous brimstone fill our minds and take away our agency in a curiously pleasing way. The world is aflame. We ask ourselves, what am I to do? Lent is a time to retreat from the world, to peer into your own soul, and to discover what parts of your Earthly life need to cut off such that your Spiritual life may thrive. It is a time to fast, pray, and give alms so as to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect and imitate Christ. The world can wait. Your soul can't.
Our 40 days of sacrifice mimic the trials that Jesus faced during his period of fasting in the desert before the beginning his public ministry. The verses from the Gospel of Matthew at the beginning of this post are my favorite description of this time in the Christ's life. Asceticism is an essential part of the Christian faith. The many monastic communities in the Catholic fold inspired by the Desert Fathers use the Lord's time in the wilderness to model practices in their own communities. Withdrawal from the everyday world was used by these early Christians to reflect on the faith's metamorphosis into an imperial religion. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to mark their devotion to God. They lived simple lives dedicated to glorifying the saving grace of our Lord. During Lent we are called to join into this kind of life in whatever ways small or large that we can.
It's intriguing to me that the desert is where Jesus retreats to. I suppose it is natural given the climate of the Levant. It's not exactly wet enough out there to have much else. Primeval forests, hidden wetlands, barren mountains — all can serve as escapes from the world of man that are conducive to self-reflection. Nonetheless, the desert feels like a particularly fitting place for meditation. I've spent a lot of time in the arid, desert southwest during my travels around the US. Deserts are my favorite landscapes. They are stark. Hauntingly beautiful. The silence is deafening, the sky is unclouded, and the ground shimmers. Life hides from view. Geology dominates your view — tantalizing sandstones, mysterious arroyos, confounding mirages. Temperatures are extremely hot during the day and utterly cold at night. Water is hard to find. Food is hard to find. This is the perfect setting to do penance. The solitude is absolute. It's only you, God, and the devil. Who will you choose?
I gave up Twitter as my Lenten sacrifice. I began spending a lot more time online after the onset of the pandemic and the bird site is my platform of choice. It is an addicting product, as intoxicating as any drug I've tried. I've always been "extremely online" but my post-corona world has been something else. With in-person, physical connections cut off, internet relationships stepped in to fill that void. I don't think my use of the platform has been harmful, at least recently. During the summer I let myself doomscroll far too much. A few months ago I began to cull my follow list pretty carefully and replaced outrage and fear-inducing accounts with those that post wondrous art and glorious glimpses of nature. My friends at the Lindy Table have been a gift from God. Retreating from the world in our physically isolated, digitally networked world means getting off social media. I've found it to be both refreshing and lonely at times. The time freed up by removing it has been conducive to self-perfection.
I am attempting to address my pride during this time. The main way it expresses itself is through intellectual condescension. I was a bookworm, nerd, and gamer in my childhood as you might have guessed. I was constantly praised for my intellect growing up. Being "smart" became a key part of my identity. I wasn't athletic or charismatic but at least I was a genius damn it! I have a superiority complex when it comes to life of the mind. It developed in reaction to insecurities I felt in other parts of life — my looks, my speech, my depression. I am a confident person now but the coping mechanism remains. I find myself thinking that everyone other is an idiot, constantly blabbering without stopping to listen, and being strangely defensive when it comes to others interacting with my ideas. I don't hold my beliefs to be that important and certainly don't evangelize them to anyone else, but being challenged brings out a brutal, unpleasant side of myself that I want to excise.
A secondary, more recent, way that my pride manifests is as spiritual superiority. After being dumped by my high school girlfriend I was broken for a long time. I had made her my idol, built up a vision of the world that I would live with her, and clung to her and the family we would build together as a reason to live life. I began to explore religion more deeply after this experience, seeking a path to the good life that couldn't be taken away from me. I first explored Buddhism then came back to the Catholic Church. I began to try to live out the Sermon on the Mount literally a few months ago after God retrieved me from an extremely deep, dark depression, and my life has been incomparably more fulfilling since. My main ministry is with the homeless in downtown. I don't judge others for not doing as I do, but at times I applaud myself for my good deeds and I don't want to see that evolve into pride moving forward. Charity is not about feeling good about yourself, it's about bringing the Kingdom of God into the world, now.