Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mark 1.29-39: In Search of a Deserted Place

While it was still dark, Jesus went to a deserted place to pray (Mark 1:29-39, Epiphany 5B). In imitation of this action (repeated more than once according to the gospels), Jesus' followers have been looking for deserted places in which to pray ever since.

They have gone to literal deserts. The so-called desert mothers and fathers were hermits who lived primarily in the deserts of Egypt in order to be closer to God. Arguably the most well-known of these was St. Anthony (who has a host of other designations as well...Anthony the Great, Anthony the Abbot, etc.). At one point in his life, Anthony believed himself to be the first Christian to go live in the desert. In a vision he was told of St. Paul of Thebes, so he set out to find this "more excellent" servant and hermit. The meeting of Sts. Anthony and Paul is often set in front of a cave, presumably Paul's cave, and usually including the raven that brought bread to the two hermits (much like Elijah was fed by ravens).
A Thebaid: Monks and Hermits in a Landscape by Lorenzo Costa. c. 1505. J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.
Some Christians live where deserts are scarce. Nevertheless, they created their own "desert" places, and indicated them by name. One example is Ireland's Dysert O'Dea in County Clare. Though a single meaning of "dysert" seems obscured in the fog of mist and legend, speculation (and variation) abound. It is not a big leap to see the word as a a cognate of "desert" which is, indeed, one of the suggested root meanings. Ireland, the land of a million greens, does not have its own desert, though the Burren -(the root, Boireann, means "rocky place") is a wild place. If no desert was handy, then people who heard the stories of the Christian hermits in the Egyptian desert had to create their own desert.
Eventually, though, some Christians even found places like Dysert O'Dea too civilized and, seeking unity with God, they were on the move again. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, a monastic community moved to Skellig Michael, an island off the west coast of Ireland. Michael is the larger of two rocky, remote islands. Though it can be green, it is more than adequately described as a "deserted place."
Christians continue to follow Christ's example and seek places of retreat, whether for a weekend or a lifetime of prayer. That he chose to take time away for prayer even without the constant time and attention demands of cell phones and other devices should remind us that the kind of retreat and prayer that he modeled isn't about finding balance in a technological world but is instead about maintaining connection with the one who sends us and saves us. Where is your deserted place?

What does the book at left have to say about the gospel lesson for Epiphany 5B? Click below to go to the Food and Faith blog and find out. More about monks on the move at the Art&Faith Facebook page.

For thoughts on the Isaiah passage for Epiphany 5B (Isaiah 40:21-31), click here.

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