Ad Fontes: 1st Sunday in Lent

Benedict left his home feeling the need for some time away from everything. He walked into a narrow valley going into the nearby mountains. He crossed the Anio River and followed the path up, up, past the ruin of a villa that had belonged to the Emperor Nero, that great terror of Christians. But Nero was long dead, and the Catholic Church was alive. Across the valley he could see more ruins, old Roman baths, still today not entirely gone. There’s no telling if it happened to cross Benedict’s mind that day, but the sight was a perfect symbol of his time. Rome was falling, mostly fallen. All around were the signs and glories of Rome’s greatness. People still thought Roman-ness was something to be proud of. They were still convinced it was the best thing going. And they were probably right. Even as it slid further and further into the slime, many of them couldn’t quite bring themselves to imagine the possibility that the whole Roman civilization might just fizzle out. People talk and write about ‘the Fall of the Roman Empire,’ but it didn’t really fall. It rotted. It slid.

This is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang, but a whimper.

Rome was the whole world as far as any of them knew, and it was mid-slide when Benedict decided to check out. He left the ruins behind and continued to climb, up to a point where the mountain became a sheer cliff and there was no more path to be struck. At the base of that vertical rise was a cave, looking over a little lake five hundred feet below. Benedict went into the cave.

For three years.

Subiaco today, with monastery
Then he founded the first great order of Christian monks, led a renewal of the entire Church, wrote a rule that is still followed today in monasteries around the world, and not incidentally, saved Western Civilization… and that’s not nearly as much of an exaggeration as you’d think. When barbarism and decay rotted out everything around them, the Benedictine monks prayed and worked in their monasteries, carefully and painstakingly copying and transmitting Plato and Virgil and Homer, along with Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. They guarded the embers through the long storm.

The place is called Subiaco, and Benedict’s three years there were not wasted time. They were not a delay before he got going. They were the fountain and source: without Subiaco, there is no Benedict. Without Subiaco, our world would be so different it’s impossible to even imagine what things would look like now.

Manresa today, built into a chapel
A thousand years later, a Spanish soldier named Ignatius found his military dreams shattered along with his shattered leg. This was a world falling apart, too, even if it was only his personal world. There’s no telling if he was thinking of Benedict when he went into a cave at Manresa for eleven months. But when he came out, he had the outline of the great Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and the seed of the Jesuit Order that would be the Church’s finest and truest witnesses and missionaries, through the Protestant revolt and later in missions around the world.  There is no Ignatius without Manresa.

Catherine was also a sort of a cave dweller, if you count a little room in her parents’ house in Siena. Admittedly, she wasn’t the first or the last teenager to spend a lot of time shut in her room. But Catherine was purposefully imitating the desert monks and nuns. She didn’t have a desert or a cave so she had to made her room work… and it most definitely worked. After three years, having a mystical experience of espousal to Christ, she emerged into the life and work that would reform the Church, and even reform a Pope or two. She is now a Doctor of the Church… but it started with a teenage girl finding a desert to be with God.

St. Paul had his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, and then? He disappears entirely from Christian history for two to three years. He was praying and contemplating in the desert. When he emerged, he was… well, he was St. Paul.

Even at the start, when the Messiah was first recognized, it was by John, that wild man of the desert.

And into that same desert went Jesus himself, at the very beginning of his ministry. Forty days of fasting and prayer, and temptations too. And when He came out of the desert, He unleashed the Gospel. He started preaching the Kingdom of God.

Can I hit you with a pretty heavy quote from my man Hans Urs von Balthasar?

“We do not need to go out from our world in order to find the desert…. ‘The desert grows’ around us whether we like it or not; we can remain where we are. What we call our culture flees blindly from the meaninglessness which surrounds us on all sides, from the emptiness and ever present death; it refuses to die the absolute death of abandoning itself to the unconditional and precisely for this reason pronounces dead the God to whom it should itself die.”

Benedict and Catherine and Ignatius and John and Paul changed the world as disciples of Jesus, who truly redeems the world. We are supposed to change the world, too. But there is no pattern more clear and consistent in Christian religion than this: the mission, the apostolate, the fruitfulness starts in the desert. It’s so necessary that the Church asks us to do it every year. Not necessarily to go somewhere, but to find the desert where we are… to find our Subiaco, our Manresa, our little quiet room.

Every Christian needs these times. We need times of simplicity, and starkness, and quiet. We need to make them happen by whatever means necessary.

A side note for those of you who have little ones in the house… I’m sorry, I promise I’m not trying to make you cry. If you tell me quiet time for God is mostly unachievable, I believe you. You can ask God for the miraculous grace you need to make up for being human and not being able to do the impossible. But none of us should have to ask God to make up for us being lazy and not wanting to do the difficult.

We need the desert time. And in truth, we hunger for the desert time. Even if we aren’t very good at actually making it happen, there’s a hunger for simplicity and recollection. Part of Lent is to return to that core, that basic core of who we are as sons and daughters of God. These forty days should be cleansing, renewing, a return to our Baptism. 1st Peter said it’s not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We give things up, and simplify our lives, and give away some things, and let ourselves feel some hunger, and return to prayer. Because we all get caught up so easily and so often in stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. Stupid stuff that doesn’t matter! Some of it never could matter. Some of it might matter if we offered it to Jesus, but we don’t. This return, this desert time, it’s essential. Our souls need this like our bodies need oxygen.

However you’ve chosen to observe this particular Lent, please make it about your relationship with God, and not about some kind of self-improvement project. If we come out of this a little more virtuous, that’s fantastic, that’s beautiful. But the real point is to come out of it with more love, for God and for our neighbor.

The world says God is dead because the world fears death, fears the obvious meaninglessness of most of what we call our culture, fears the absolute and unconditional. For all the bluster about love, the world runs away when it sees the real thing. We love this broken world, and we are called to serve it, and to save what can be saved, like Benedict and Catherine and Ignatius. But we can only truly serve the world by not being entirely part of it, by stepping back and reconnecting with the God who is our only happiness and our only hope. It starts in the desert.


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