Lenten “Inner” Retreats and Solving Social Struggles

Since the earliest days of the Christian Church, Lent has been associated with the 40 days that Christ spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 4.14). By observing the forty days of Lent, one can imitate Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days and can also prepare for public ministry as essential for helping solve social struggles.

Such preparation can also be tied to Easter Sunday. In Western Christianity, the first day of Lent in 2016 is on Wednesday, February 10. Forty days later is Saturday, March 26, Holy Saturday, and the next day is Easter Sunday.

Imitating Christ’s withdrawal into an “inner desert retreat” as described below, can begin on Ash Wednesday, February 10 amidst a reminder that “for dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3.19; Ecclesiastes 3.20)” and a reminder that “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures . . . (Psalm 90.10) and hopefully longer, so we can publically help solve the social struggles within the communities in which we live, work, worship, recreate, socialize, and serve.

During the 39 days that follow Ash Wednesday, searching the scriptures daily regarding the many references to justice will clearly make it evident that justice is at the core of God’s being as it should be for us. “For I the Lord love justice (Isaiah 61.8a)” and so should we.

The last three days of a 40-day inner desert retreat—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—provide opportunities for more serious spiritual reflection that can focus on the Last Supper and the crucifixion of the Savior Christ. On the very last day of your 40-day inner desert retreat, Holy Saturday, you can “wait at the Lord’s tomb” as did several of the first Christians and meditate and contemplate the life and teachings of the great Teacher including justice.

Most importantly, may you rise with Christ on Easter Sunday and further your public ministry unlike ever before by bringing about healing, transformation, and reconciliation by helping to solve and end the social struggles that have left neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and even entire nations pained and conflicted.

May you also fulfill the teachings of the scriptures concerning justice for years. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit after spending 40 days in the desert and went to Nazareth and read the following from a scroll by the prophet Isaiah which was handed to him on the Sabbath day

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4. 14-19)

The scriptures, however, note that at times

“justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
The Lord looked and was displeased
that there was no justice.
(God) saw that there was no one,
(God) was appalled that there was no one to intervene.”
(Isaiah 59.14-16)

At other times, God

“looked for someone among them who would build up the wall
and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land . . . but I found no one.
(Ezekiel 22:30)

If during, or soon after, a 40-day inner desert retreat experience you realize that God is looking for someone to intervene and stand in the gap, may your words echo those of the prophet Isaiah

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
(Isaiah 6:8)

Why an “Inner Desert” Retreat Experience?

Many of us love to retreat as weekend monastics in monasteries that are up in the mountains and/or surrounded by forestry and bodies of tranquil water to further develop a personal and intimate relationship with God as it should be. However, let a Lenten inner retreat be a retreat into an inner imaginary desert.

Christian monasticism began in the desert. Some of those initially living the monastic life are known to us today as Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived alone in the desert.

The most well-known Desert Father is St. Anthony who went to live in the desert during the latter part of the third century. Many sought him out for spiritual wisdom and by the time of his death, thousands of persons followed his example and advise and became desert monks and nuns. One of the most well-known Desert Mothers was Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, who gave her wealth to the poor and counseled hundreds of women who came to live like her.

Many of the monks and nuns who lived alone in the desert began to form communities in order to support their monastic lives. Thus, monasteries were formed in physical locations and in physical buildings. Within these locations monks and nuns had their own monastic cell.

Over the centuries, the monastic cell not only became a very private space for Christian monks but a very private experience as well. The physical space was experienced as a spiritual affair with God. Early monastic writings are filled with metaphors that emphasize the monastic cell as a place to withdraw from the world and as a place for the monk to cultivate one’s spiritual life in solitude and silence.

Monastic writings, however, after the 12th century began to contain metaphors that describe the monastic cell not only as a place that is withdrawn from the world, but also as a place within the world such as a garden where a monastic could still experience solitude and silence amidst outdoor beauty.

Many lay and clergy persons today have become familiar with the idea of the monastic cell particularly through retreats and books. When one goes to a monastery for an overnight retreat, you are assigned a room similar to today’s monastic cells.

You may read or hear during a directed retreat an ancient monastic saying which is “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Like modern day monks and nuns, you will likely seek out a place of solitude and silence amidst the surrounding beauty.

There is another monastic saying that has appeared in writings regarding monasticism which is

Said the teacher, “Go sit within your cell
and your cell will teach you wisdom.”
The disciple said “But I have no cell. I am no monk.”
The teacher said “Of course you have a cell. Look within.”

To “look within” and “sit in your cell” references the soul for many monastics. The soul has been a place where we can find solitude and silence amidst everyday life. It is a place where we can connect with God at any moment and place of our choosing which allows us to cultivate an on-going interior relationship with God.

Thus, our inner cell/soul is not just a private place to be alone in solitude and silence like the desert was to Christ and his followers such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It is an inner place that we carry with us even in the midst of our everyday life. Thus, it is also available for us for a 40-day inner desert retreat experience during the coming Lenten season especially since it is unlikely that your daily responsibilities will allow you to retreat to the desert, mountains, forests, and/or waters for 40 straight days.

Prepare for the 40-day inner desert experience by Listening to a Still Small Voice by way of a Gentle Whisper

The scriptures contain stories about others who withdrew into the desert and struggled to strengthen their relationship with God. One such story concerns Elijah and I want to encourage you to do what he did sometime before Ash Wednesday by reading the following from 1 Kings 19.4-14

(Elijah) went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD . . . The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD.

Like Elijah, may you take “a day’s journey into the desert”—an inner desert—and pray. And while you are taking a day’s journey into your inner desert, if you are also asked to go further until you reach “Horeb the mountain of God,” as was Elijah, may you do so.

Mount Horeb has a long history of encounters with God. It is the place where God called out to Moses from the burning bush and said “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” and “take off your shoes for the place where you stand is holy (Ex. 3. 1-5).” It is also the place where God said to Moses “I will stand before you upon the rock in Horeb and you shall strike the rock so that water will come out and the people shall drink” (Ex. 17.6).” It is also where Moses placed the 10 commandments into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 8.9).

Like Elijah, may you go into the cave when you reach your Mount Horeb and spend the night. And, like Elijah, if the Lord says to you “what are you doing here” may you also say “I have been very zealous for the Lord.” And, if the Lord says to you, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD for the LORD is about to pass by”—may you listen and listen very closely.

You may think that the presence of the Lord is near if a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but only find out that the Lord was not in the wind. Or you may think that if an earthquake should follow after the wind that the presence of the Lord is near, but only find out that the Lord was not. Or you may think that if a fire should follow after the earthquake that the presence of the Lord is near, but only find out that the Lord was not.

However, like Elijah, after the fire you may hear a gentle whisper. And, if you hear that still small voice may you also go out of the cave and stand at its mouth. Then, may the Lord say to you a second time, like to Elijah, what are you doing here? May you be able to answer the Lord a second time as did Elijah and say “I have been very zealous for the LORD.”

And, while zealous for the Lord, may you begin a 40-day “inner desert” experience on Ash Wednesday that will ultimately transform your ministry to include solving social issues, problems, and injustices out of love for your God and your neighbors.

Search the Scriptures for 40 Days

I want to encourage you to search the scriptures regarding justice for 40 days because you will find many. I would like to draw your attention to one passage to help initiate and frame your 40-day inner desert retreat.

the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
Justice will dwell in the desert and
righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of righteousness will be peace;
the effect of righteousness will be
quietness and confidence forever.
(Isa 32. 15-17)

The Psalms alone are filled with verses concerning justice. The psalms make it clear that justice is at the core of God’s being. Psalm 37. 28a states emphatically that “the Lord loves justice,” Psalm 99.4a proclaims “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity,” and Psalm 97b notes that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”

The psalms also make it clear God administers justice for

  • the oppressed (9.9; 10.12; 103.6; 146.7);
  • the orphan (10.17; 68.5; 82.3; 146.9);
  • the poor (12.5; 41.1; 72.4; 72.12; 140.12);
  • the needy (12.5; 72.4; 72.12; 82.4; 109.31; 140.12);
  • the widows (68.5; 146.9);
  • the desolate (68.6; 82.3);
  • the weak (72.12; 82.3);
  • the hungry (107.9; 146.7); and
  • the brokenhearted (147.3).

Fulfill the Scriptures for Years

After spending 40 days in the desert, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read the scroll of the prophet Isaiah which was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4. 14-19)

Like Christ, may the Spirit of the Lord be upon you because you have been anointed to preach the good news to the poor. And as previously noted, if God is looking for someone to intervene and stand in the gap and ask “whom shall I send,” echo the words of the prophet Isaiah and say “Here am I. Send me!”

Let us Pray together

During the season of Lent
may the Spirit be poured upon us from on high,
and our inner desert become a fertile field,
and the fertile field seem like a forest.
May justice dwell in our inner desert
and righteousness live in our fertile field.
May the fruit of righteousness be peace;
and the effect of righteousness be
quietness and confidence forever.

May the Spirit of the Lord be upon us,
because God has anointed us
to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, and
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then may we rise with Christ on Easter Sunday
and serve our God unlike ever before
and bring healing, transformation, and reconciliation
by helping to solve and end the social struggles
that have left our neighborhoods, communities, cities, counties, states,
and even our entire nations pained and conflicted.

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