Sermon: Born to be Mystics + Children’s Story on the Desert Fathers & Mothers

This is the first sermon in our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice To Call Us Home. A children’s story on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, written by Beverly Walsh, follows this sermon.

Luke 4:1-13

So, what do you think of when you hear the word “mystic”? What word or phrase or image comes immediately to your mind? I’m not looking for something thoughtful here, just your gut response, your first response. It’s OK if it’s not a positive association. What was that word or phrase?

Growing up in an Amish-Mennonite community in the Midwest, I never heard the word “mystic.” When I did first hear of it, I thought it referred to people who would go into a cave for years to commune with God, or a guru from India who meditated constantly or a monk or nun who would experience religious ecstasies when praying the rosary or some such thing. In short: A mystic was kind of this exotic other. It didn’t apply to anyone I knew and certainly not to myself. 

Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that being a mystic is part of the “abundant life” to which Jesus calls us, and that in fact it’s our spiritual birthright as human beings. We begin our lives in a state of complete union, inseparable from the body of our birthing parent, our mother, as I said in the email that went out earlier this week. It takes awhile for us to even experience ourselves as separate from this source of life. 

Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot Indigenous rights activist and spiritual teacher, in her book Sacred Instruction, puts it this way: “When we come into this universe, we are born into our first ecosystem, our mother’s womb. There we are nurtured and sustained through an umbilical connection to the body of our birth mother. When we are born into this world, our umbilical connection is transferred from our birth mother to the Earth mother. Our umbilical connection with the Earth mother then nurtures and sustains us for the remainder of our human lives.”

She’s talking about the fact that we are born into a web of relationship with all of creation. Nearly all of the elements in our bodies — as well as the bodies of everything else on earth — were formed in the stars.  Sherri writes, “Science has finally caught up with what we (meaning Indigenous people) have always known, that we are all related. We are all made out of the same foundational elements” — stardust and water. “It is simply the arrangement of those elements that gives distinct form to what we see before us.” In addition, we share DNA with every other living being.  Approximately 98 percent of our DNA is shared with primates; 35 percent is shared with plants. We share about 50% of our genes with bananas. Contemplate that the next time you’re eating one. 

“Though we have migrated a great distance,” Sherri writes, “the radiance of star dust still resonates within us… This stirring is a call of recognition, of remembrance. It continuously reminds us that we are infinitely connected to one another, to the natural world, and to a unified divine source…. We are part of a universe, a collection of individual notes in one continuous song; the song that sang all life into being.”

Why wasn’t I taught that growing up? I’m grateful that I was born into a tight-knit community. Nature was very present. And I’m grateful that I was taught that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus. There was some relationship there, some connectedness. But I was also taught that there was something deeply sinful and wrong in me and that only Jesus’ bloody death on the cross could make me “at one” with this God, this Creator. That is a story of separation. 

If you didn’t grow up with that story, I’m guessing you still were formed by a story of separation. How about this one: You are a separate, isolated self, and you are competing against other separate, isolated selves to meet your own economic needs. That’s the foundational story of our capitalist economic system and it affects all of us, whether we know it does or not. How about this one: Nature, that “stuff” out there, is there for us to use and use up. There will always more natural resources for us to consume, even if we need to start mining the moon or move to Mars. How about this one: Nothing in this universe, but us, is truly alive. We’re the only “things” with consciousness in this vast universe. The recent update on this story is that even we may not possess consciousness. We might just be a bunch of algorithms with some meat around us. Karin mentioned the separation story of the Enlightenment rationalism in which she was raised, as in: If you can’t access it through your five senses, then it’s not real.

The deep wisdom of every religion or cosmology says that these stories of separation are not true. In fact, the word “religion” traces its etymological roots to a word that means “to bind fast.” And so the real work of religion is not to devise dogmas or determine who’s saved or even to make us good people. The real work of religion is to make us all mystics. To re-bind us to God or Christ or Spirit or the Lifeforce, to re-bind us to Creation, to re-bind us to each other, to re-bind us to our true selves. To literally re-member who we are. 

But since few us have been trained to think of ourselves as mystics, we need guides. And, thankfully, we have a deep lineage of teachers within our Christian tradition. The first guides we will meet today are the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  In the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christians began withdrawing from the cities to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia, emulating the journey of Jesus that we heard today. Like Jesus they were trying to get some geographical and psychic space from the from the economic, cultural, and political reality called the Roman Empire. Like Jesus, they went apart for awhile to separate from Empire and its temptations — to firmly ground themselves in the alternative kindom of the Realm of God. 

This was the Empire that first persecuted Christians but then later gave Christianity privileged status when it became the state religion of the Empire. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were refugees from this Empire, were eyewitnesses to the ways in which Christianity changed as it became the state religion of the Empire. Instead of being a small, persecuted group of people who were deeply dedicated, it became popular, the “happening” religion. The powerful and rich flocked to it. Christians went from worshipping together in small house churches to worshipping in glorious cathedrals, with priests wearing resplendent robes. This was almost a complete 180 from its “radical communal beginnings as an alternative to a world questing for wealth, power and prestige” (Paul Grout in his book Encounter a Place Apart: A Companion for the Warrior, Mystic, Monk.) Christianity lost its originating vision in the Jewish prophetic movement, which critiqued any power that oppressed others. It became the power that oppressed others. It became the place to be if you were questing for wealth, power and prestige.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers, to quote Paul Grout, realized that Christianity’s absorption into the Empire “spelled disaster for their souls.” When they went into the desert, they were not disengaging from life; they were seeking to more deeply engage in it. “In the desert,” he writes, “the distractions that numbed the mind, the spirit, and soul evaporated. All that separates from the fullness the life-force (his word for God) intends lay clearly exposed… the desert mothers and fathers… walked into the wilderness in much the same way Jesus had; forced by the enemy of their souls to deal with all that would pull them away from full devotion to the life-force.” There, Grout writes, they engaged the “powers and principalities” that sought to dominate their lives and divert their attention away from the realm of God. There, they engaged the demons, fears, addictions and dependences that sought to rob them of abundant life.

We also live within Empire. We also have demons, fears, addictions, dependencies, distractions that seek to separate us from the fullness of the Lifeforce. So the Desert Fathers and Mothers speak directly to us with the questions their lives ask of us today:

What temptations pull you away from full devotion to the life-force?  

What distractions pull you away from your birthright of connection to this Lifeforce?

What demons, fears, addictions and dependencies rob you of abundant life?

What desert or wild place do you need to go to — either literally or within yourself — in order to more fully reclaim your connection with this life-force?

I want to end with the mystic prayer written by Grout (which I adapted somewhat). Settle  into a prayerful space, and as you sit with those questions, I invite you to pray with this prayer as we begin our Lenten journey together:

Holy life-force,

Holy Jesus,

Holy Spirit,

One revealed in three,

Present in every living thing,

in every moment,

Holy mystery

Beyond defining,

Open me to the mystery,

To see beneath the surface,

To live within your depths.

Come to me beloved,

Embrace me

In the beauty of your completeness.

As the world races

And humanity falls exhausted,

Quiet my spirit,

Lift me to dancing.

Open me to my smallness.

Within a galaxy of 200 billion suns,

Within a universe of millions of galaxies,

Make me smaller still,

The tiniest speck

But in your mercy

A speck of light.

Holy Spirit, walk with me

As you walked with Christ

Into the desert,
The vast and empty space.

Walk me through the Valley

Of the shadow of death.
Expose my clinging

To the half-life,

To fear.

Help me to awaken

From empty dreaming

So that I may become

One with you

And all creation.

Comfort me in my loneliness

So that I may comfort the lonely.

Through my suffering

Lead me to those who suffer.

Anoint my weeping

that I might weep with the brokenhearted.

Use even my darkness

To bring forth light.

In my healing

Anoint me to heal.

Allow me to enter into:

The song of the hermit thrush on the lower branches,

The beating heart of the winter wren on the stone wall,

The eyes of the barred owl in the winter night.

Send me to those who need to be seen.

Remove the stone from the entrance

To the cave that shelters my heart

To see as you see,

To love as you love,

To embody in my life

The message of the gospel

Revealed and set free in Christ.

After drawing my last breath,

My body will merge into the earth

To be taken by spring rains

Into the streams flowing into rivers

To the oceans that touch every shore,

As my soul

Flows into You.

Desert Fathers Children’s Story

I’m Andrew and I’d like to tell you some of my story. Many years ago I lived in Egypt. As a little boy, my home town was known for its busy markets, lively entertainment and powerful political scene. My parents said I was smart and dreamed that one day I would grow up to be a wealthy politician or businessman so that I could have plenty of money and power to care for my family. But to me that sounded awful. I saw those people in the streets having fast conversations, debating, arguing, sometimes even throwing things and it made my head spin. Too much noise, too much shouting, no one ever listening.

For me, I longed for the quiet. My favorite thing to do, was to sneak away to the edge of town and get away from all the noise and busyness of the city. There it was quiet enough to hear the birds, and if you listened closely, you could even catch the sounds of scurrying little lizard feet across the rocks. I loved to find a nice spot in the shade, where the ground was still warm from the sun, lie down on my back and look up to the sky. (invite people to lie down) In the city we were so busy looking down at the ground, or getting distracted by all the colorful fabrics and foods hanging in the shops that we never took time to look up.

This place, on the edge of the desert, in the quiet is where I could feel the presence of God the most. 

Close your eyes and imagine lying on the sand in the desert. Feel the warmth of the sand under your body. Listen, what might you hear? Birds, wind, your own breathing. Can you see the big clouds that begin to turn into recognizable shapes if you let your mind go. Then, as it gets dark, the stars begin to come out. I love the stars, how they twinkle and shine. They remind me of how big the world is.

Open your eyes and we can all sit up again…

When I grew up, I left my home town and moved to the desert. I left the hustle and bustle of city life, the comforts of being surrounded by my family and easy access to food and water, for a life with fewer distractions. It became a life where I could spend my days in quiet thought, talk with God the way I imagine Jesus did when he went away to the mountain to pray. Living like that helped me to learn many true things about people and God, they say I became wise. People came to me with their most difficult questions and I shared with them what I had learned. 

My time has long gone, but some of my words live on in books and stories that are told today. They call me a Mystic. I was one of the desert fathers.