Long after the tele-prompted speeches of political candidates in this year's American election fade away, men and women of faith will continue to read the words of the desert fathers and mothers from 1700 to 1600 years ago. These spiritual leaders fled the distractions and cares of the city in order to own next to nothing, to labor daily with their hands, and to fully commit themselves to quiet contemplation before God. There is wisdom and stability in their words that we so desperately need in the midst of political campaigns that thrash about in search of attention, power, and allegiance.
We wouldn't be the first people to turn to the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers in the midst of life's worries and political turmoil. We have many accounts of people from the cities venturing out to meet the early church's desert monastics, seeking advice for themselves and for their churches. As tempting as it is to paint the desert fathers and mothers as recluses who shunned others, the reality is that they welcomed visitors and shared their wisdom.
In his collection of sayings from the desert fathers, Thomas Merton writes:
"The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage."
So long as we are immersed in the wreckage of outrage, racism, militarism, and inequality– as long as we lack time spent in silence before God – we will struggle to imagine another reality, to see others with the compassion of God, and to see a next step with clarity.
I know that I need to recognise the impact of each day's noise on my mind and to understand how the worries and cares of each day drown out the voice of God. If I desire to be present for others and to take meaningful action to help them, I first need to become the kind of person who can offer help. I need to receive from God and hear from God in order to have something valuable to share.
The truth is that I could spend the better part of my day fuming with anger at America's politicians. Our political decisions have surely brought good things to some, but there remain many catastrophic failures in our past and the potential for more in some of the troubling policies being put forward.
But there is little that I can do in a state of agitation and anger. I won't have the ability to be fully present for those who are suffering. I won't have the capacity to take action or to reach out to those who have the influence to change things.
The Christian monastics shared teachings such as:
"Just as it is impossible for a man to see his face in troubled water, so too the soul, unless it be cleansed of alien thoughts, cannot pray to God in contemplation."
"If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him."
I recognise that most of us will be limited in our capacities to both withdraw from the noise of politics and to take action. Thomas Merton is mindful of this and writes in Wisdom of the Desert:
"We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God."
Perhaps our first steps today could look like recognising our current states of agitation, anger, and fear in the midst of the current election. Must we listen to each daily news report, speech, controversy? Surely there will be another speech next week, fresh waves of analysis, and another controversy to fight about. I suspect that someone could spend an hour reading the news and political platforms on the day before the election and still arrive at a very similar conclusion compared to spending a year immersed in life and death political coverage. Can we disconnect from the noise for a period of time to immerse ourselves in the quiet presence of God?
There are simple ways we can work on practicing the presence of God through silence or daily contemplation. We can even use apps, such as imagining scripture with the Pray as You Go podcast, reading the Divine Hours online, meditating on the Bible with the Jesuits app, becoming aware of our thoughts with the Examine app or the new Reimagining the Examen app, and combining prayer and action with the Common Prayer app. Richard Rohr's daily email will help merge mindfulness with action as well.
The larger picture isn't about disconnecting from the challenges of today, but rather placing ourselves in a position so that we can respond to the challenges of today with God's compassion and direction.