I first discovered the “desert fathers” in Henri Nouwen’s little book, The Way of the Heart. His book was a such a gentle beginning to what I continue to find as a deeply Biblical, existentially honest look at the interior life. Nouwen did not speak, as the Desert Fathers did, about the “demons” in my soul. Rather, he spoke of compulsions that drive us without our awareness until we face them head on.
Nouwen speaks early and often of compulsions of anger and greed that keep us so driven.
Anger? Oh, no wait. I am not an angry person, and certainly my responses to life are not driven by anger. That is, until someone is driving too slow in front of me, or has more than one card to use at the ATM machine, or honks at me when I am too slow or producing multiple cards at the ATM.
And the same with greed. I never saw myself as greedy. However, if there is cream for only one coffee in the morning, you can bet I’ll be up first. And I recall an embarrassing moment with my adult siblings where they all recalled that I really believe the center of the cornbread belongs to me. Hmmm, as I write this I think I should probably fast from helping myself to anything first!
And why? Because these “little” inner compulsions, the Desert Fathers’ “demons,” the Apostle Paul’s “ungodly nature” all point to the compulsive need to be first that is at the heart of our need for a season in the desert. Deserts are, well, rather boring, in addition to being uncomfortable. And in the very mundaneness of them we discover what we work so hard to mask when we are in valleys or on mountaintops.
This is not a foreign reality. Referring to our baptized identity in Christ, Paul says, “You have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God…Put to death therefore whatever belongs to your ungodly nature” (Colossian 3:2,ff) Greed and anger are certainly not far down the list of things that need to be killed.
We can live such busy Christian lives that we never stop long enough to realize the compulsions that control us just under surface. And if we do not know something exists, we cannot slay it. But “you’ve died, now die” suggests that regularly we take measures to stop running and let our “demons” rise to the surface.
This is in no way the end of Lent, but it is its beginning. Confronting our sin is the first step in preparing to celebrate our Lord’s freedom over it in us. This longing to experience the deep freedom Christ won for us in his death and resurrection is the reason why the church has traditionally begun Lent with this invitation:
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (BCP, Ash Wednesday, 265)