Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

The Prayer of Prostration

“And on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

For many Christians, prostration is a forgotten posture of prayer.

To prostrate oneself is to lie flat on one’s face, or to bow low and touch one’s face to the ground. It is the ultimate gesture of submission and worship. Our bodies speak outwardly the act of surrender we are choosing with our will.

We are probably more familiar with the prostrations of Muslim or Buddhist prayer, or the acts of groveling that courtiers made toward their rulers in ancient pagan cultures. But prostration also has deep Jewish and Christian roots.

If you google “prostration in the bible,” you might be amazed at how often this posture is utilized in both the Old and New Testament. Whether Moses in the meeting tent or the twenty-four elders around the heavenly throne of the Apocalypse, prostration is a fitting response to the glory of the living God.

Catholics regularly engage in a modified form of prostration by genuflecting in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus or by kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. Let’s face it, we often just go through the motions and don’t really think about the spiritual significance! We would do well to be mindful and intentional each time we engage in it.

Full-blown prostration also occurs in Catholic liturgy, but rarely. On Good Friday the priest and deacon enter in silence, reverence the altar, and then lay on their faces in prostration. The congregation accompanies them by kneeling in silence. The Latin instructions for the Missal use the verb prosternunt for both gestures (lying on one’s face vs. kneeling). Both are acts of humbling oneself and submitting to the living God.

For us priests, perhaps our most vivid memory of prostration is from our ordination day, when we lay face-down on the floor of the cathedral for several minutes. Meanwhile, everyone in attendance knelt down and chanted the Litany of the Saints, imploring all of heaven to pray for us so that God would bless and consecrate us in the ministry we were about to receive. I felt so blessed and loved and connected and supported in that humble moment. All was gift.

All is still gift, but I easily forget that truth. During the last year, I have found myself occasionally returning to that posture of prostration, and receiving much fruit from God.

This past June, as I entered into five days of silence for my annual retreat, I found myself under spiritual attack. It happens. Certainly we shouldn’t try to see “the devil under every rock” or over-spiritualize daily life. Often the devil need not attack us because we are doing a perfectly good job of self-sabotage!

But the devil sometimes does attack– usually in the dark shadows of our heart, trying to get us to believe his subtle lies. Sometimes he ambushes us outright. The words of Paul are certainly true: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).

I found myself paralyzed by fear and anxiety and hopelessness – and without any obvious explanation of why this was coming over me so strongly and so suddenly. I struggled to go to the chapel and struggled to pray. I began reading Galatians and the call to live by faith in Jesus Christ rather than by our own efforts. I recognized that I was being paralyzed by my pride and self-reliance, that I was resisting a total surrender to God. I recognized that I was being oppressed by a spirit of fear and anxiety – indeed by that very spirit who is the evil master of this present age (cf. Galatians 1:4). Feeling the call to surrender to Jesus in faith, I followed a prompting of the Holy Spirit and prostrated myself, then and there. I renounced pride and self-reliance and begged Jesus to deliver me. It was liberating; the change was dramatic and lasting. The remaining five days of the retreat were a time of deep serenity and fruitfulness. Even months later, I find myself still reaping the fruits.

Since then, I have often returned to that posture of prostration – especially when I find my own will getting in the way or find myself struggling to trust and surrender. Mind you, I always look around to make sure that no one is watching. I am still way too insecure and self-conscious.  Even if I don’t physically prostrate myself, I sometimes do so spiritually.

Trusting God as a loving Father has been hard for me. My wounds of fear and shame get in the way; lies about who I am and who God is get in the way. But above all else, my pride and self-reliance get in the way. Jesus alone can deliver me from these lies and proclaim his truth in my heart.

There is nothing magical about the gesture of prostration. But we are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. God made the whole person, not just our souls. It makes so much sense to worship him with our whole self. Yes, we Catholics have much to learn from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. But on this point of bodily worship, I think we Catholics have much to teach (if only we can appreciate it ourselves!).

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Whether we prostrate ourselves physically or spiritually or both, let us all, like the Magi at Bethlehem, submit ourselves to the King of kings and allow his wisdom to reign in our heart.