Confronting our Shadow, Brian Gorman
Throughout the church’s history, the desert has played an important role in spiritual formation. In the Bible, the desert is the proving ground for the Israelites and Jesus. Later, a group of wise Christians, who became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, went to the desert in search of spiritual rebirth in response to disturbing trends in the church’s relationship to the state. They were the founders of monasticism, solely devoted to the worship of God. Their only work at first was praying the entire canon of the Psalms every day.
Something about the bleakness of the desert brings out our deepest demons and presents the chance to confront them, to face our shadow side directly. Just a year out of college, I wanted such formation. So, in 2009, I spent the summer interning for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The CAC had just purchased a 200 acre plot of wild and undeveloped land a couple of hours west of Albuquerque quite literally in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal, miles from the nearest person. At the end of my internship, I took a weekend-long solo, silent retreat there.
I had grand spiritual plans for my excursion into the wilderness. I planned to fast from food, bring only my Bible, journal, and guitar. I’d spend the entire weekend praying, walking, and confronting my own insecurities and demons. I’d emerge a stronger and more faithful disciple, ready to embark on God’s calling on my life. A coworker loaned me an old, steel-pole tent. Upon my arrival, I began to set it up, only to find it impossible to do alone. The ground was too dry and sandy to hold in the stakes; I had no hammer or mallet to drive them in far enough. It was not intuitive how to put the poles together, and every time I made some progress, the wind would whip around and knock the whole thing down. I remember getting so angry at myself, at the tent, at the surroundings. Here I was, trying to be holy and prayerful, and instead spent seven hours putting this tent together.
I look back at that weekend with great fondness because even as my impatience and frustration threatened to get the better of me, I knew it was an important part of my desert experience. In the desert, we are alone with God and our own temptation. We do not get to pick and choose the things which will challenge us, the things which will demand our worship. The great majority of my weekend was filled with prayer and song, and I was consistently reminded of the utter beauty of creation, as alone as I will probably ever be. But that first day brought out the worst in me. At nights, I was scared of being so alone, hearing coyotes, imagining snakes everywhere. It would get so cold. And yet, I saw an unbelievable sky and knew God to be very close. It was indeed holy ground, like Moses and the burning bush.
While I do believe there is something unique and mystical about the actual desert, we can seek out the kind of formation the desert offers in other ways. We can create regular space in our lives to be alone and in prayer; we can fast; we can take a day or weekend of silent retreat. Many people use Holy Week (the days leading up to Easter) as a time of more intentional fasting and prayer. If we enter into the kind of space the desert symbolizes, then we can be assured of two things: 1) The Satan, the accuser and tempter, will meet us there to tempt us and cause us to confront our shadow; 2) God will meet us there to remind us of our true selves, created in God’s image to worship God alone.
Like Jesus and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of our most profound formation will come when we encounter our deepest temptations alone with God. There is no end to the importance of community in Christian formation, but there are some thing we must choose to face on our own. Let us take Lent as a challenge to go deeper into the darkness, knowing that the Light of Resurrection awaits us at Easter.