It’s Getting Real…

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What do you get when you have sixty women from your parish go away for three days in retreat, conversation, and prayer? You get real.

I had glimpses that what happened last weekend at Montreat was something extraordinary. Retreats can do that; they have long been a meaningful part of my own spiritual practice. They are spaces that take us out of our normal way of doing things and set us down in an environment that calls something….else….out of us. We realize how we’ve been grasping onto things—how things have been grasping onto us. Retreats can be giant mirrors that show us that the root of so many of our perceived problems actually rest within our unwillingness to let go of our own agendas and trust the Spirit that is alive and moving among us.

So, yes, what do you get when you have a retreat? You get real—or at least you have the opportunity to get real.

Over half the retreatants sent me reflections on their time at Montreat. I asked them to send me a six-word sentence that described their experience. The themes of willingness and community weaved throughout, as did the theme of “seeing past our Sunday church masks,” finding connection in true community rather than in superficial routines, having joy be unleashed, finding freedom from the chains that can bind us up, and feeling God’s holiness within one another.

One extraordinary woman’s thoughts hooked me:

Sunday morning I was overcome with emotion. I looked into the face of each woman as she came up to the altar for Communion, and I saw her in a way I’d never seen her before. I saw her beauty, her hurt, her joy, her pain, her potential. I saw myself in her and felt connected to her in a way that transcended the mere Sunday acquaintances and friendships. It was one of the most deeply moving moments of my life. God was there.

What a wonderful way to step into this Lenten season, to reflect on the significance of these spiritual experiences. I’ve often thought that Lent is that time of year (among a couple others) when we’re invited to stop “playing church” and start “getting real with our spiritual practice.” It is a time during which we face the truth that many of our routines are void of the depth of significance that the fullness of our Christian practice offers. Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate; rather, it’s about being aware of how we resist self-discipline and mindfulness. The purpose of Lent is not to give up chocolate. Chocolate is only the vector, or carrier, if you will, the object or space through which the practice of self-discipline can transform—through grace—us from banality to deeper consciousness.

A major question for me this Lent is, “how do I get from here to there?” How do I get from my normal, typical, mind-less way of living to the more mind-ful space of awareness and spiritual depth? To put it another way, how can I “get real?” How can I “wake up?” and prepare during this season, knowing full well what is going to be asked of me when I step in more fully to participate in Christ’s own death, burial, and resurrection?

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

St. Luke’s account is far more tranquil than St. Mark’s image of the Spirit driving Jesus into the desert.

So, we have this movement here away from the Epiphany-resonating space of Jesus’ baptism—where, one might expect a little time to celebrate and rest in the significance of that moment. The Spirit is not some comforting, complacent reality that lets Jesus coast on the accomplishment that he has experienced. He must move from the lushness of the riverside to the starkness of the wilderness, because if you want to grow spiritually, you must encounter the most frightening thing in all of existence—yourself. And, it’s a bit hard to encounter yourself when you’re comfortable resting by the riverside.

The Spirit fills Jesus and leads him out…away…into a space that is going to strip away the distractions of life and provide the space for an encounter with those deepest aspects of reality—that space where the divine and human encounter one another and…something happens.

In this space of encounter, we come face to face with temptations and resistances, with a pre-occupation with ourselves. Ego-driven agendas don’t do well in these wilderness spaces, because, well, there really isn’t anyone to impress. Posturing isn’t going to help us do the work we need to do.

In this story, Satan tempts Jesus three times: “turn these stones into bread,” “worship me, and it will all be yours,” and “throw yourself down and have the angels rescue you.” We know these temptations all too well, don’t we? They are all temptations that are rooted, as my teacher Tilden Edwards would say, in a life that is rooted in an ego-driven consciousness. These are the temptations of satisfying superficial hungers, yielding to the seduction of power, and creating a spectacle to impress others and inflate our importance. I don’t know about you, but I know these temptations all too well.

This is the work of Lent: to take advantage of this time and space to truly do some good spiritual work. To see in a way we have not seen, to foster a level of community that, maybe, we have avoided, to have our hearts opened, to trust in the possibility of freedom from the chains that can bind us up—as a few of the women shared in their reflections.

So, how do we do this? How CAN we do this? How is this depth of practice possible? How can we stand to be this honest with ourselves? How can we avoid the urge to run back into our old, comfortable ways of doing things?

The secret lies in yielding…

If you’ll notice, Jesus didn’t exactly go into the desert alone. Satan showed up, yes, but Jesus wasn’t alone in his time of practice and reflection, his time of silence and meditation. The Spirit led him into the wilderness, and the Spirit stayed with him and led him through that space and out again on the other side. Maybe that’s the secret of Lent after all: yielding to the Spirit’s urge and call.

I want to tell you a story Belden Lane interpreted from a book Tales of the Dervishes. A dervish is a sufi, a Muslim mystic who devotes his life to the contemplation of God.

There was a nineteenth-century dervish named Awad Afifi, who gained his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert. He told a story once about a gentle rain that began falling on the hillsides there. The droplets gathered together and formed tiny streams, then larger streams as they began to cascade down the mountainside. The river flowed down and down, and, as Afifi writes, “learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly.”

As the water flowed, it eventually found its way to the edge of a great desert, a great wilderness.

I’m going to quote from here on out, because his language is so beautiful.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.” “Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.” “But how?” shouted the stream. “You have to let the wind absorb you.” The stream could not accept this, however, not wanting to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream. “Why can’t I remain the same stream that I am?” the water cried. And the desert answered, ever so wisely, “You never can remain what you are. Either you become a swamp or you give yourself to the winds.”

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by flowing around obstacles, by turning to steam when threatened by fire. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapors to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Awad Afifi refused to say what the story “meant,” how it should be interpreted. He simply pointed his students to the desert nearby and urged them to find out for themselves.[1]


Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent I, Year C
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016


[1] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. Oxford University Press, 1998. 20-21.

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