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The Silence of the Wilderness

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Mar 26 2017


In our mind’s eye, Jesus may be crawling through desert sands; we might imagine him, panting and delirious, punished by the cruel sun. But Matthew’s gospel places Jesus in the north, in the green hill country near to where the great River Jordan spills into the Sea of Galilee; so it is more likely that Jesus spent forty days making his way through blooming valleys and breathtakingly sculpted ravines, and that he spent forty nights sleeping in the shelter of ancient cedars, up in the mountains, beside a waterfall of snow melt, beneath the stars. Our English Bibles speak of this world into which Jesus set out as a ‘wilderness’, but that does not quite capture the true measure of the beauty and fullness and enchantment of the land. The Greek of the New Testament here makes use of a wonderfully rich and evocative little word – eremia. Again, as in today’s lesson, we are given to read this as ‘wilderness’, but eremia describes not so much a physical as a spiritual landscape. Eremia means, at its most literal, someplace you can be by yourself. It has elsewhere been translated as ‘a hermitage’ (our word ‘hermit’ takes eremia as its root); it has been translated even simply as ‘solitude.’ Eremia is land which wants us to be alone with it. 

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, into the eremia, which is to say, into solitude. For forty days and forty nights, Jesus knew only the company of the grass and of the forest and of the sky. And, of course, out in the beauty of the world, alone there, Jesus knew also the company of his own thoughts. In the deep, the perhaps terrifyingly deep, quiet of his solitude, no doubt he would have been greeted by wonderings, by fears, by memories, by hopes, by regrets, by feelings that had come great distances from down and down and down inside of him. Jesus’ longings, his joy, and his pain must have spoken to him, there in the silence, with a power and a clarity they never had before. It must have been as if there was shouting within him. We are told that among whatever unimaginably many other voices he surely heard, there were also whispers, as of demons. Solitude is a sort of wilderness, after all; and strange and dangerous thoughts came prowling in the brush of Jesus’ consciousness. Maybe they had always been there, always been with him, always been within him – the lies and the lusts, crouched in waiting. But in the silence, in the still, open clearing in his mind, he was made newly and frighteningly vulnerable to them. He was exposed, without cover. He was alone and trembling and found, found by everything within him that we might sooner hide from or flee from. The Spirit led Jesus into solitude to be tempted, to be tested, that is, to confront what was inside of him, what was wild and hungry inside of him, to face the whole of who he was so he could come forth as who he might be. He who was to stand against evil in the world would first need to stand against evil in himself. Solitude made possible the moral contest which clarified the moral commitment of Jesus. He needed the silence of the wilderness so that, ultimately, he could hear the summons of God in his own heart.

If, like Jesus, we are to become who God would have us become, we will need the silence of the wilderness. We will need solitude. But silence, but solitude – these have perhaps never been in scarcer supply. We do not talk about this, in fact, our culture does not welcome talk about this, but I think if we were to tally the pros and the cons of being on Facebook or on Twitter or on Instagram or on Snapchat or on email 24/7, for most of us, the pros would not outweigh the cons. We all know the pros – social media is a fun, convenient way to keep connected. We can share our thoughts and share pictures of our babies and pictures of our puppies and pictures of where we went on vacation and pictures of what we made for dinner; we can keep up with old friends from college and with colleagues we met at conferences and with family who live half a world away. There are opportunities for networking, there are provocative blog posts about big issues, there are silly memes of cats getting stuck inside of things. To give up social media is to give up these goods; but what do we give up by staying on it? Any real possibility of solitude. There is simply no eremia, no ‘someplace to be by yourself’ to which we might retreat so long as we are reachable by anyone at anytime about anything. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that many of us know more about how so-and-so from high school or someone we dated once spent their Saturday than how it is with our own souls. 

Never being alone is not only bad for us (we will circle back to this), but it is, maybe counterintuitively, bad for all those we are never not with. A world which forbids us solitude is a world which also forbids us community. The great contemplative Henri Nouwen once wrote that ‘true community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness’ but rather ‘solitude greeting solitude’. We all see ‘loneliness grabbing onto loneliness’ online, the constant, plaintive crying to be noticed, to be seen, to be cared for. But I worry that the kind of connection social media makes possible actually degrades our capacity for the kind of connection most of us desperately crave; that is, I fear that we are being socialized into a way of relating with one another that is not only unfulfilling, and if we are honest, a bit pathetic, but, more, that is destructive, that is corrosive: we are being led to believe that we can pop in and out mindlessly of other people’s lives, on our schedules, as we have a spare second and it suits us, that it is – or that it should be – quick and easy and effortless to show up for someone else, that it should cost us nothing – just a quick, misspelled ‘Happy Birthday’ tapped out in a stairwell and shot off to a sort-of acquaintance: all of us grandly celebrating the birthdays we do not really remember of people we do not really remember. Interest in and concern for one another is now what we do when we have nothing better to do. I worry that we are underestimating the habit-forming nature of these online behaviors and that, as we grow accustomed to connection on the cheap, we will withdraw from thicker, trickier, harder, more demanding, but in the end, more durable and satisfying relationships. Is this not our reality as a nation? I worry about the health of our communities, when we are all connected on Facebook and on Twitter and on Instagram and on Snapchat and on email 24/7, but are less and less connected in PTAs and book groups and bowling leagues and civic and volunteer organizations and neighborhood associations and supper clubs and, yes, church families; I worry that virtual infrastructure alone cannot support the weight of the world we want to live in. I worry about kids whose busy parents are always pecking away on their phones; we are starting to get data on an upswing in attachment disorders. I worry about zombie-spouses who are always only alone together, sitting side by side, zoned out, with eyes glued to separate devices. 

Most of all, to the point of the scripture, and circling back to the sad consequences of hyper-connectivity on our own souls, I worry about the mindset of moral, spiritual avoidance that our addictions to technology enable. I worry that every time we are bored or cannot focus or feel lonely that we reach for our smartphones, that we get a hit of stimulus, and that we are kept from attending to whatever unpleasant but real and present matter is at hand. And that we then grow less sure of what any given moment asks of us, and less able to avoid distraction, and less likely to engage others with any meaningful constancy, and then, that we reach for our smartphones. And so on. And so on. I gave up Facebook some months back, and it terrifies me that I still, instinctively, find myself reaching for my iPhone. I do not even have anything to look at anymore – it is a ghost reflex, a tick. On the T, waiting in line, at the dinner table when Jake runs to restroom, reading a book, I find myself holding my device and wondering when I picked it up and staring at an inbox I have already emptied but cannot stop compulsively checking, just in case. I was not even a so-called ‘heavy user.’ 

Clearly, I need solitude. And I wonder if you do, too. I wonder if, together, we might follow the Spirit’s leading into the silence of the wilderness, if we might let ourselves be exposed and frighteningly vulnerable before all it is we would rather hide from or flee from, if we might give ourselves to the excruciating work of being tempted, being tested, of confronting what is wild and hungry within us, of facing the feelings that would visit us, which would come great distances from down and down and down inside of us if only we let them, facing the whole of who we are so that we might come forth as who we are meant to be. I wonder if we might re-learn what it is to keep company with our own thoughts, if we might sit in the deep – the perhaps terrifyingly deep – quiet of solitude and hear our longings, our joy, our pain speaking to us with a power and a clarity that they never had before. I wonder if we might start leaving our smartphones at home, if we might see how long we can go without looking at them, if we could let ourselves check email only twice a day and never, never once we are home from work. I wonder – if we can’t give up social media entirely, maybe if we might pick one platform only and go down to five minutes a day and see how that feels. I wonder if we might embrace solitude and the moral contest it makes possible and then together celebrate the clarity of personal and moral commitment and the community that then comes. There is so much beauty and fullness and enchantment awaiting us in the wilderness. Will you join Jesus there? Will you let yourself listen for the summons of God in your own heart?