Isaiah 55:111; Matthew 6:2433
A few years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Sinai desert with a group of parishioners from Los Angeles. Although travel often opens us up to fresh encounters with the Divine, Pilgrimage is meant to be time taken out of daily life to ponder life in God. Pilgrimage is precious time carved out between that rock and that hard place where our overcommitted schedules often catch us up. They catch us up in ways that distort our actions and relationships. We snap at a well-meaning friend or cut off an irritating competitor on the freeway of life. Instead of the steady breathing in and out of God’s abundant love for us and others, we are often gasping, sucking in and out spurts of anxiety that must emit more toxins than a gas-guzzling “super-size me” SUV!
Ours was a motley band of pilgrims–young adults, middle-aged and retirees all seeking a similar goal: We wanted a simpler life. Our lives, like most Americans’, were out of balance. We were toiling and spinning so much we had lost our bearings. Like many others, we felt like demagnetized compasses who, instead of pointing north, whirled in wild circles, pointing east and south and west-north-west, and it was impossible to keep our orientation. Unable to find our true home, we were waiting for a word that might show the way.
The plan for our pilgrimage was to visit ancient monasteries in the Judean Wilderness and the Sinai, while studying the biblical stories through the wisdom of fourth-century desert spirituality.
In the fourth century, countless Christians in Egypt and Palestine moved to the desert to live a life devoted to loving God, neighbor and self, and to live as spiritual guides, and leaders and members of monastic communities. So successful was this movement that in the fourth and fifth century the desert became as populated as a city. The more spiritually mature lived alone in huts and caves, while others lived together. They were contemplatives in action.
Visitors and tourists came from afar, leaving their harried lives in the Empire to find this spiritual oasis in the rockiest and most barren of places. Their goal was to have a desert mother or father speak a word of wisdom to them. We know these ancient spiritual guides today from their odd little stories and pithy sayings. A desert mother or father could diagnose and treat a spiritual issue with wisdom of laser-like precision. And we receive from them a great inheritance: the monastic guest houses and spiritual retreat centers around the world where so many flock to today. So it was a gift for us to travel to the desert of the ancient fathers and mothers, hoping that they might nourish us, feed our relationship to God.
We hear of God’s feeding and nourishment in our first reading today. In Isaiah’s extraordinary vision, God extends an invitation to a banquet where all shall be fed. It is God’s dream of a world rightly ordered. For us that means a world where all are given wholesome food, sufficient shelter and medical care. Those who are unemployed, underemployed, and the one billion people who live on less than dollar a day, all will have meaningful work and a living wage. Isaiah’s proclamation is one of the most stirring messages of hope in the whole of scripture.
Why then, in the words of Isaiah, are we spending money for that which is not bread and laboring for that which does not satisfy? Why are we apathetic or discouraged when it comes to caring for the billion in need? And why do we, who are blessed with so many resources, often find ourselves complaining most bitterly of feeling empty? It is because our lives are out of balance. Our lives are too busy. We disregard rest and we disregard Sabbath, and as such, we feel starved, thirsty for a taste of God. As one desert mother remarked about life out of balance “Truly I say, lack of proportion corrupts.”
Our response to the obligations of our over-burdened lives is to try to address them immediately: we work harder, run more errands, stay up late to send one more e-mail or grade one more set of papers. We keep running faster; we keep working harder. And before we know it, instead of praying, we’re laboring ceaselessly.
And the reality is, this attitude is rooted in our culture, and our culture thrives on it. Did you know that Americans work 350 hours more than most workers in other industrialized countries? 12% of Americans took no vacations because they were too busy working. When others do manage to take vacation times, it turns out that many are frightened that while they’re away, someone else will take their job. In other cases, young doctors in their residency work astonishingly long hours. A friend in her first year of residency called me yesterday. She was alarmed that she had just worked a 38 hour day—that’s right. When we look at the reality of our culture and compare it to today’s text, the text is absolutely infuriating. Its directive to be anxious for nothing seems entirely unrealistic.
Our over-exerted selves never seem to lack anxiousness at all, and the result is that we feel alienated, far from our homes. And sometimes, the only solution is to just take ourselves out of the chaos. So it was good that the Angelinos and I shuttered up our lives for three weeks to head into the desert.
At a monastery near the Dead Sea, in a desolate landscape, we practiced our first day of silence. Silence is a key tenet of desert spirituality. I found it painful as I felt my mind obsess over matters left unattended in my absence. And just as I would calm my brain down, I would get distracted again. I remember getting torn from my meditation as a pilgrim friend trudged by, laden down by his bulging backpack. He looked like one the camels we later met at Mt. Sinai who hissed and spit when they became weary of us, their human cargo. I realized then why it was so hard to focus on silence: all our baggage keeps us from hearing God’s word.
A few days later, we began our trek into Sinai. Our guides, a Coptic Christian, a Muslim and a Bedouin, knew the way through the sand and rock. They were an intrepid trio versed in the mysteries of the desert. They followed the bone-dry wadis, the subtle desert paths that the watercourses make after heavy rainfall.
It’s a strange lunar landscape, the desert, and it is so quiet, so quiet. We were unaccustomed to such stillness, it made my ears ring. I could hear my breathing,
It reminded me of the first time I went scuba diving and had to decide to trust my respirator. The sound of my breathing in the desert made me anxious. In fact, the whole journey made many uneasy: we had no access to showers, no bathroom, no tents. It was winter, and we only had the sleeping bags our guides supplied—thin little bits of fabric and polyester like the Cinderella sleeping bag I took to sleepovers in the warm and cozy homes of my other eight-year-old friends. And yet despite all differences, we were finding home. The desert was a thin place where heaven and earth come near. And I guess our desert guides thought that when you’re waiting for a word from God, you just can’t have too much between you and the Source.
The night heavens seemed so clear, so close. I wanted to reach out and touch the stars—to catch one in a jar like a child chasing fireflies on a warm summer night. One pilgrim, the elder of our group, told stories of how he had served in the British Navy in World War II and had learned the ancient art of navigating the seas by way of the stars. He pointed out Orion, the brightest constellation of stars in the sky. He told us that Orion is comprised of a family of over 700 stars. He then guided our gaze to a set of three very bright stars. “That’s Orion’s belt,” he said, “That belt helps us navigate sky and sea. And in the winter months, with Orion fixed in your sight, you can always find your way home.”
It was then I knew, I heard a word from God. That belt of Orion encircles us in God’s love. There we were the motley household of God, finding warmth under the sheltering sky, blanketed by stars. We were falling asleep in a wadi in the Sinai, as if we were being held in the tiniest of furrows in the palm of God’s hand. God’s word was writ large in the stars that night. Go to sleep in faith, wake up in faith.
Jesus taught us to be anxious for nothing, but he knew, anxiety will always be with us, after all, he labored mightily on the cross for us, spent his love, that we might be love for the world. But the wisdom of the desert tells us that such anxiety can be experienced more like background noise that the stillness of the breath can manage. Because God is Spirit, and the Spirit is as close as our breath. Now we don’t need to travel to the Sinai to find this. Have you ever followed your breath? Listened to its rhythm? I invite you to try this: In a moment we’ll have some quiet reflective time. Listen and try to gently even out your breath. Breathe in five counts, breath out five counts. Make your inhale and exhale even. Then see if your breath catches at the top of the inhale, or tenses at the bottom of the exhale. Breathe gently and calmly because your breath is filled with God’s love and life. When we trust that the closeness of God is in our breath then we find that home is everywhere, everywhere under the stars God has given us. Home is God’s omnipresent love, for you and me and the whole of creation. Whether under the Sinai sky, New Delhi, Iran, or New Orleans, we are home because we are enclosed by the stars, warmed by that the super loft sleeping bag of God’s great love.
As I began to doze off under the Sinai stars, I was calmed by my breath, like a lullaby from God cooing in my ear and assuring me of this: the measure of life is not in our labor, but in how we love Christ in our neighbor. How we inhale and exhale God’s love for the world.