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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Messages of Gratitude from the Desert (and for it, Sort Of)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

For years, our family has had a "Thanksgiving Tree" tradition. We write on cut-out leaves something we are thankful for, then hang them on a "tree" of dead branches, and on Thanksgiving Day, we share them all. Since we've saved these leaves over the years, I can look back at mine, and there are several constants. Among other things, it seems that at this time of year I regularly feel gratitude for changing seasons, for frost on the grass, for fall foliage, for the smell of the earth after a November rain. It wouldn't be wrong to sum up one of the main themes of these leaves simply as: I am thankful I don't live in a desert.

Despite the faith community I am a lifelong member of having achieved its first full development on the edge of America's Great Basin Desert, that attitude is, I think, probably somewhat woven into modern Mormonism as well. I lived in Utah for five years, as an undergraduate and graduate student at Brigham Young University, and was happy to leave it for many reasons, not the least being the six months out of every year where the dominant natural color everywhere I looked was a dull brown. While its proximity to the Wasatch Range and its canyons, alpine meadows, and ski slopes may make it easy for the Mormon faithful gathered in the heavily urbanized corridor from Ogden to Provo to forget that they live in a desert, the order of ordinary life there also serves to push that awareness ever further away from everyday awareness. Maybe that just means that living in Salt Lake City is similar to living in Last Vegas or Phoenix or any other urban agglomeration located in an arid place--but I suspect there's more to it than that. 

Rather, I think the lived experience of American Mormonism itself has become thoroughly suburban, or even urban, perhaps as profoundly shaped in its assumptions about spiritual life by post-WWII suburban developments as American evangelical Protestantism has been. This shift towards stereotypical "urban" spiritual characteristics--pragmatism, individualism, flexibility, diversity--has arguably threatened something essential about the Christian faith, but such an argument is rarely heard among American Mormons, who, for the most part, see the practices and opportunities of urban modernity as simply a new challenge to integrate into their faith life. The idea that my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, needs to maintain the old tradition of separate farming communities--much less flee to the desert in order to preserve its collective relationship with God--is an idea that has long since been forgotten in pursuit of creating perversely well-watered suburban gardens and golf courses in Utah. That is, assuming it was ever believed by more than just a handful of cranks in the first place.

Still, those cranks may have a point, and they put my thankfulness for having avoided what I see as the harshness and empty openness of the desert (so different, to my mind at least, from the openness of the Kansas horizon, which is always distant but never empty) into question. That the desert speaks to some people--or, perhaps more accurately, opens some people up to a still and small voice they perhaps need to hear--is not news to me. A thoroughly urban and cosmopolitan friend of mine has written about the starkness of the Utah desert, and how he experiences something "profoundly stirring and deeply right" when he stands "awed by beauty and unspeakable vastness," "feeling impossibly small," during his visits there. I can't say I've ever had such an experience--but among my faith tradition more than a few others have. Gene England saw the desert as a place of covenant, calling the Mormon faithful to live up to the hard standard of peace. Nathan Nielson reminded us that the enchantment of the stark desert escapes our every attempt to package it, whether for visiting tourists or just ourselves. Perhaps most famously, Terry Tempest Williams saw the whole 20th-century history of Utah Mormonism as a tale of violation and rebirth in the desert wilderness, and in so doing gave voice to a Mormon environmentalism which was only ever implicit in decades past.

As wise as some of those writings are, though, none of them reproach me in my perhaps misbegotten anti-desert gratitude as do the Desert Mothers and Fathers. For these ancient mystics and hermits--whom I've been reading a fair amount of lately, as part of an effort to become more familiar with the early Christian church--the idea of the desert as a hard, demanding gift, a necessary and subjecting and purifying gift, is absolutely central. That language alone--a language of subjection and purification--isn't at all typical to the very modern rhetoric of the LDS Church, so it's not surprising that these early Christians saw things very differently from the way desert-dwelling Utah Mormons do. (And, to be clear, it is radically different from the faith language of the overwhelming majority of practicing Christians of all stripes in America today as well.) But that different perspective has been haunting me over the past months, and among other things, making me rethink the whole project of gratitude I see among my fellow Mormons.

Primarily, there is the fact that our language of counting one's blessings is almost always an enumeration of the positive: I am blessed with this or that or this other good thing, and for them I am duly grateful. That is definitely not the approach reflected in all that has been recorded of these desert monks long ago. Instead, their approach is that of the tax collector in Luke 18:13; for them, gratitude was primarily a negative expression of abasement and unworthiness. In the words of Abba Or, "In my own opinion, I put myself below all men"; in the words of of Abba Matoes, "Now that I am old, I see that there is nothing good about me"; in the words of Abba Anoub, when asked "What is integrity?" answered "To always accuse oneself." Consistently, across hundreds of sayings, these mystics suggested that they had pursued a life of solitude and suffering in the desert because they understood the best route to recognizing the love of--and their dependence upon--God to be that which separated themselves from the temptations posed by material accumulation, accomplishment, and security. To truly not judge others as Jesus commanded, to be one of the "pure in heart," meant to remove from one's life any basis for judging oneself or anyone else as deserving of any reward, whether it be good health, a remunerative occupation, supportive family and friends, or even sufficient goods, to say nothing of luxuries. The praising of God's goodness through the listing of blessings is replaced by the pleading for God's mercy in the context of sinful deprivation, which the humbling reality of desert existence hammered home daily. Abba John the Dwarf summed it up well: "Do not pay attention to the faults of others, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing that you are less than every created thing."

It is easy for modern-day Christians, particular those of a restorationist tradition like Mormonism, to dismiss all these folks as kooks at best, apostates who have gotten Christianity entirely wrong at worst. And I happily agree that there are ways in which I see their extreme asceticism becoming an idol in itself, particular in the way their insistence upon solitude--Abba Poeman: "Have the mentality of an exile in the place where you live"--runs against the very community-building hope which Jesus said His grace would always attend to. But some of these desert truths seem powerfully true to me, all the same. In particular, my own intellectual gifts and educational blessings come in for probably much needed disparagement, with these monks reminding me that a humble person is always willing to confess ignorance before the ways of God (Abba Anthony: "Abba Joseph has found the way, for when asked to explain the Scriptures he has said: 'I do not know'"). And some of the stories of genuine pastoral consideration and care which these sayings include are both beautiful and, I think, perhaps more reflective of the ways of the human heart than is often the case in stories whose context is a suburban cul-de-sac or citified congregation. But sure, just as the desert is a place of extremes, so are most of these sayings.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that the few signs of moderation found among these determined souls generally come from the women monks, the Desert Mothers. Amma Theodora warned that "neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save," since demons, which neither eat nor drink, are not impressed by fasting, nor by separation from the world, since they live in the desert too. Amma Sarah observed that one should not condemn those who give alms for the praise of others, like the Pharisee mentioned in the same scripture above, because even if such acts are "only done to please men, through them one can begin to seek to please God." Perhaps the most well-known Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica, strikes this tone often. Not that she was at all ambivalent about her choice to pursue a life of solitude and suffering; she was actually rather contemptuous of the "many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and thus are wasting their time," and noted that being "a solitary in one's mind" was a matter of personal discipline, not circumstance. But she did not deny that people in urban circumstances, far away from the desert and "living in a crowd"--whom she called "seculars"--could also achieve the sort of balanced commitment which recluses like herself sought. She thought it was unlikely, since "immoderation cohabits with...the freedom of the city," but it wasn't impossible. Ultimately, one just has to be sensitive to just what kind of vocation God is calling one to; as she is recorded as saying:

Not all courses are suitable for all people. Each person should have confidence in their own disposition, because for many it is profitable to live in a community, and for others it is helpful to withdraw on their own. For just as some plants become more flourishing when they are in humid locations, while others are more stable in drier conditions, so also among humans: some flourish in the high places, while others achieve salvation in the lower places.

As someone who, as our collected Thanksgiving leaves from years past testify, has pretty much always, ever since escaping Utah, been appreciative of a course that hasn't involved living in high and dry places, and has been grateful to witness the changing of seasons from fertile and flat places all through the rest of my adult life instead, I need to keep this reminder of the variety of God's creation, and the variety of humankind's relationship to God's creation, in mind. It's not the most important lesson I take from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it's a valuable one all the same. Particularly during a time of thanksgiving, it's probably a good idea to think less about whatever bounty we think God may given any of us, and more about how God's love is always there, calling out to us, demanding a response from us--even, or perhaps especially, in the stark, sometimes psychologically immense and emotionally gaping absence of any particular bounty whatsoever, which too many face, every single day. 

Personally, I'm not sure I've ever heard that call, nor do I think I've ever felt any desire to listen for such a call, across the desolate, demanding, desert spaces which my church fled to and made blossom like a rose (partly and at some environmental cost). But I'm thankful to those, both anciently and today, who have turned away from living in the crowd (sometimes only briefly, sometimes for a lifetime), gone into the mountains and deserts, and shared with me what they heard. It's not a warm and light message of gratitude that I've learned from them; more often a harsh and intimidatingly direct one. But among the great fecundity of God's creation and the diversity of those who hear and respond to and seek to live in accordance with His word, it's a word of thanks, I think, all the same. As Job supposedly said, whether the Lord gives (like in the wide, rolling fields of Kansas I've come to love) or the Lord takes away (like in the haunting, sterile vistas of the Utah desert which some weirdly adore), "blessed be the name of the Lord."

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