This blog was adapted from a sermon given at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC, Canada on March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday in Lent. It drew from Exodus 17:1-7 (Moses + the Water from the Rock) and John 4:5-42 (Jesus + the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well).
Lent is the perfect time to enter the desert. A time for simplifying, for paring down, and for reacquainting ourselves with our key intentions and principles. Jesus and the Samaritan woman banter good- naturedly in the drylands at Jacob’s Well. How will you draw water with no bucket? she asks. Moses leads his people from bondage in Egypt into the wilderness of the Sinai Desert. How do we receive water from stone? they cry. They need water. We all need water.
From those ancient deserts that evoke eternal questions, let’s travel to another desert where I began to learn about living water: Imagine yourself in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. This is the land of the towering Saguaro cactus, whose arms spread to the glory of a cerulean sky. Very little else there is green. Water is scarce. If you don’t pay attention, you may not notice how lively that desert is. At this time of year, the cactus flowers bloom: hot pinks and oranges. Purples and golds. The black-chinned hummingbirds dart and dive, expressing their fierce territorial joy. Whipsnakes emerge from their gritty dens into the warming sun, trusting that their camouflage will preserve them from the talons of passing hawks. When the sky takes on its evening cloak of shimmering mauve, stars peep out by the thousands. Elf owls hoot, poking their heads out of burrows to launch the nightly hunt. Kangaroo rats take refuge amongst the boulders.
In that unexpected desert liveliness lies a monastic retreat center on the outskirts of Tucson. I was visiting there as a cultural anthropologist researching the ritual practices of non-monastic Christian contemplatives. Fifty people had gathered together from around the world for a Wisdom School to learn from a teacher of contemplative Christianity, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault.
Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Schools are not really retreats—not a place to take a break from life’s vicissitudes to relax and rest. Rather, Wisdom Schools are high-intensity learning environments modelled on Christian monasticism. Based on a daily Benedictine cycle of ora et labora – that is, prayer and work – Wisdom School is a place for non-monastic Christians to learn and practice skills for living a contemplative life—a life of “prayer without ceasing” (as the Apostle Paul described it) dedicated to quietly awakening to the Divine, to seriousness of purpose, and to a commitment to Christian principles, such as service, hospitality, humility, honesty, compassion, and love—basic tenets shared by many different peoples and traditions around world.
Principles like these are not always easy for us to keep. Where do we find the water that can sustain our ideals? For we all know that alongside our creative brilliance and generosity of spirit, we humans can also be distractable and unsteady, even volatile. Students came to the Wisdom School at Tucson to practice how to set aside that volatility and let the living water flow.
We learned how ritual—if approached with humility, attention, openness, and love—is God’s gift to humanity, a gift which can help transform us to see the world and act in the world in the ways that our faith tradition prizes. The monastic life based on ora et labora—prayer and work— acknowledges that all things spring from the Divine, but that even so, we humans have an essential role to play in inviting and preparing ourselves for Incarnation, for the flow of living water. As unsteady as we humans can be, God depends on us to do our part.
So, at the desert Wisdom School, we practiced ritual and prayerful work to learn how to steady ourselves despite the distractions and emotions that are so characteristic of our humanity. We celebrated the Eucharist, we spent hours in silent meditation, we chanted, and we performed “conscious labor” exercises that taught us to nurture a capacity to keep present to the Divine, people, and the world around us in both formal liturgies and everyday working situations.
But something unexpected happened at that Wisdom School in Tucson. By the second evening, alongside the nightsongs of coyotes and whippoorwills, came the heart-stopping sound of people retching. We found ourselves in the midst of a Norovirus epidemic. Someone in our group had arrived infected with the virulent gastrointestinal illness that was then scourging communities all over the United States, and it spread amongst us at an unfathomable rate. Within a few days, more than a third of us were confined to bed with severe symptoms of fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. One woman was hospitalized. Those who kept their health continued on with the daily schedule of prayer and work as best they could, while also attending the afflicted. The well volunteered to care for specific individuals, checking in on them regularly to offer comfort and companionship, as well as to bring necessities. The outbreak was so bad that the local public health office closed the facility for decontamination after we left.
As dire as these circumstances felt, many in the group saw this as an opportunity, like any other, to engage contemplative ways of being. At an evening discussion of those who remained well, our teacher Cynthia Bourgeault suggested that the Norovirus had provided us with a “laboratory” to experiment with “staying right aligned with the Divine” in a situation that could easily inspire fear and panic. We had been learning about using our bodily senses to stay open, calm, and present, and had been practicing the centuries-old monastic technique of kenosis. Kenosis is a prayerful method of quieting oneself, “self-emptying,” and “letting go” of distractions to make space for Divine flow. Cynthia asked us: “Where do you go in your body that brings you back to steadiness?” In the unsettling situation of communal illness, she encouraged us to let go of the anxiety fueled by hearsay and physical tension, and to instead listen for the Divine in the present moment.
Along with coaching us on the practice of “self-emptying,” Cynthia Bourgeault also sought to prevent the spread of germs by replacing the daily Eucharist liturgy with a communal practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a Buddhist form of intercessory prayer in which one envisions breathing in the world’s pain and breathing out peace and blessing. Our teacher emphasized that it was crucial to keep humility and “a surrendered heart” during this practice; it must be a pure gift, rather than a way of self-identification or self-importance. She said: “There’s no ‘you’ in it, no story, no drama, no ‘I’ in the practice of tonglen.” One must have a “deadpan compassionate calm” that willingly participates in “a cycle that is bigger and more ancient than we are,” she said. After this, we practiced tonglen every evening.
With our mini Norovirus epidemic, much of the daily group discussions turned toward how we live with adversity. People tried to grapple with human-made horrors, like the Holocaust and the migrant crisis so near at the US- Mexico border, and with natural disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which affected people over a huge area of the globe. Cynthia said, “The jagged conditions of this realm cannot be smoothed over.” Suffering exists and we must choose how to address it.
We can take Edith Stein as an exemplar. Edith Stein was a German woman who had converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1922 and took vows with Teresa of Ávila’s Roman Catholic order, the Discalced Carmelites, in 1934. Edith Stein’s convent could have protected her from the Nazis, yet she chose to go to Auschwitz in solidarity with her fellow Jews. Stein spent her time in the concentration camp comforting and assisting those with whom she was incarcerated, then she herself was killed in the gas chambers. In 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized her, using the name she had taken upon entering her convent: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, now a patron saint of Europe.
We know from our own experience, and from the experience of others like Edith Stein, that terrible suffering does indeed exist. People are now suffering with COVID-19, with the inconveniences and loneliness of being under quarantine, and from the uncertainty and fear inspired by the pandemic.
As we face this pandemic, along with the potential for social, political, and economic upheaval, I wonder if we can take the open-endedness and ambiguity of our current circumstances as an opportunity to tune in more closely to God and to be willing to let the Divine flow through us as an act of service to others. At Jacob’s Well, Jesus did not need an actual bucket for his living water, of course, but he does need open, willing, and courageous hearts. Are we willing, despite the considerable discomfort of uncertainty, to serve the greater good and to stay centered in the principles that guide us whether we are ill or well: love, compassion, service, humility. Can we be the empty bucket for Jesus to fill?
During the run of Norovirus at our Tucson Wisdom School, our teacher said that we could choose “to make our hearts willing altars” of service to others in any situation, whether pleasant or fraught; Cynthia said, “a person’s conscious choice to sacrifice and serve liberates love into this world.” A wise old man in the group agreed. Commenting on our collective passage through illness that week, he described a contemplative response to adversity as a chance to mature as human beings. He said, “There are places in the heart that do not exist until suffering enters in.”
Like Edith Stein, like Moses standing before his panicked followers, like the Samaritan woman in conversation with a foreign teacher at the well, we can see adversity as an opportunity like any other situation in life to keep oneself centered on the good ideals and to help temper the human tendency to falter. Falter we may (and likely will to some degree), but stopping and remembering, as we do in the Eucharist—re-membering the body of Christ, bringing the Body of Christ together again in us—we can choose to steady ourselves despite the volatility of life. Even when the world is a rough place (and it often is), we have the choice to serve others by breathing out peace, breathing out compassion, and inviting God into our midst.
While God is always the principle actor in every endeavor, we humans have a crucial role to play. We can learn to “pray without ceasing” by developing our attention, compassion, and seriousness of purpose, by orienting ourselves to our principles, and by attuning ourselves to the world, to each other, and to the ever-present Divine. Wherever we are in the desert, let us open our senses and our minds to the riches around us. Let the living waters flow.
posted by Paula Pryce, March 24, 2020
Dr. Paula Pryce is a lecturer and research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. She is the author of The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Keeping the Lakes’ Way: Reburial and the Re-creation of a Moral World among an Invisible People (University of Toronto Press, 1999). To learn more about Paula, please visit her Seedlings page.