- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

The following are excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Alexander Webster at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Falls Church.
What is it about the desert that for centuries was so spiritually attractive? The New Testament says John the Baptist preferred the Judean desert as his home, and our Lord withdrew into that same wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan.
On Friday, January 17, we will celebrate Saint Anthony, a third-century nobleman who abandoned his Egyptian wealth and society to spend 20 years as a hermit in the desert by the Red Sea. In the company of no one but God, he faithfully pondered and contemplated in his cell, patiently undergoing demonic temptations.
What's so great, then, about such a vast, barren wasteland like a desert? Several years ago the writer Kathleen Norris fled New York City for South Dakota and wrote "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography." She expounded on the mystical allure of the Great Plains. "Among the simple pleasures of Dakota is driving where there is no traffic," she writes. Now, we can relate to that. On one moonlit night, she went on, "My husband and I left Rapid City and traveled the 200 miles home, seeing fewer than 15 vehicles and well over a hundred antelope."
She said that such "landscapes terrify many people," and I can relate to that. My wife and I visited Arizona in July 1994. Something beguiled me about those desert lands and majestic vistas. Of course, we spent both nights in cooled hotels. And we took in those dramatic desert spectacles in an air-conditioned rent-a-car. The desert is more appealing at a safe distance, when you don't have to really be in it.
The desert can remain captivating, both aesthetically and spiritually, when it is "out there." The more serious problem I have discovered, however, is when the desert moves "in here," into our own soul. Four decades ago, the great Russian theologian Georges Florovsky wrote about the desert, and how the fourth century saw not only the Christianization of hot spots in the Roman Empire, but the first flowering of monasticism, as typified by Anthony.
So on one hand there was the church in the empire, or civil city, and on the other a withdrawal into desert monasticism. Florovsky explained that both constitute the church. We need both for balance. We need them as mutual correctives of the dangers of each.
The monks left the earthly kingdom, Florovsky said, "in order to build a true kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise outside the gates in the desert." The Egyptian, Syrian and other monks were filled with the Holy Spirit and spiritual joy. In the desert, they became beacons of light and love. That's what happened with Saint Anthony. Try as he might to be alone, people kept coming to him for counsel, for spiritual warmth and for his presence.
The desert, for many of us, has not stopped at our doors, as it had at the cell doors of Anthony and the desert mothers and fathers. For some of us, living frantic urban or suburban lives, our desert is within. Not a natural physical desert, but an unnatural spiritual desert in our hearts. This kind of dry desert is in short supply of life.
A Benedictine nun once told Kathleen Norris two versions of heaven: "In one, heaven is all the people you love. And then the other. Heaven is where you love everyone who is there." We create our own spiritual desert when we refuse to love the people around us. And indeed, in the place we happen to be, have chosen to be, or where perhaps God has placed us, we feel empty inside when we should become full, full of love and contentment.
In her spiritual journals, Kathleen Norris has drawn on Saint Paul to describe a "basic survival principle" for all times and place: "Not only to know where you are, but to learn to love what you find there." In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Next week: a sermon by the Rev. Lon Solomon at McLean Bible Church in McLean


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