Gospel of John 11:32-44
Laura Swan is a Catholic Sister and member of a Benedictine Monastery in the Pacific Northwest.
In the Introduction to a book she has written about desert spirituality, she describes that in her own life she has come to know the desert intimately with
"all its painful stripping and intense silence."
She has witnessed death, suicide and changing relationships where life is one transition upon another. In all of this she experienced a growing awareness of being called to monastic life.
It was during the time of her initial formation in a monastic community that she encountered stories of the early Christian desert dwellers.
She was captured by the stark imagery of these dwellers who sought a passionate relationship with God.
The stories of the desert fathers, or desert Abbas, were meaningful to her but soon enough she became frustrated that stories of women were lacking.
She writes, "I began to pursue and collect traces of these women's stories.
I found myself tracking down clues, following strands of evidence, and reading the shadows of texts to find these women. Clues often took the form of rare scholarly material, frequently in footnotes and asides."
Her study culminated in a book titled, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early christian women.
Sister Laura authored her book among a community of monastic women whom she says, "know beyond any shadow of doubt that women are created fully and completely in the image and likeness of God."
She says that this atmosphere affirms and nurtures the gifts of men as well as those of women.
Sister Laura's research, writing and contemplative prayer uncovers the ancient desert Ammas and brings them into the light of the Communion of Saints for us, whose presence we can feel today, on earth and in heaven.
Ancient Ammas sought to dwell in remote geographical locations.
They could be found in caves, watch towers, monastery cells and abandoned pagan temples.
They also lived as urban solitaries.
They sought uncluttered and silent spaces to cultivate a burning love for God.
They worked to quiet the inner noise so that goodness could flow through them.
They went to solitary spaces to cultivate a tender and expansive heart that embraces the humanity of all.
Theologian Wendy Wright says that listening in the desert tradition, "involves listening to the delicate intersection of the human heart, with its desires and dreams, and the vast and silent mystery that is God."
In solitude they would listen for the ebbs and flows of the Holy Spirit which is fundamental to living a life of discernment.
Desert Ammas lived lives of great spiritual maturity.
Most central to this maturity was their discipline of interiorizing sacred scripture and other sacred writings.
Deep within their souls there was a blending of sacred text and daily life.
In silence they sought to cultivate the language of heaven.
For desert Ammas, the inner journey was everything.
Worldly acclaim was a threat to inner authenticity.
Desert Mother Syncletica of Egypt said, "Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both plant and seed, so it is impossible to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit."
Desert Mother Theodora of Egypt said that a teacher should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; successfully tested and without partisanship, full of concern and a lover of souls.
Desert Ammas were Wisdom Figures who allowed God to prepare them so that they could bestow blessings on others who sought them for spiritual guidance.
Desert Ammas would often leave their solitude to listen to and guide the many seekers who traveled to see them.
Each one of us here today is like Sister Laura who wrote this book about desert spirituality.
We have all had desert experiences in our lives.
Perhaps we know the desert intimately: loss or illness, death and fear, changing relationships and transition upon transition.
Like the desert Ammas and Abbas, our own hearts long for intersection with the vast love and mystery of God.
We yearn for the ever new and hopeful face of the Divine through and beyond every struggle and sorrow.
Desert is not merely a geographical space.
It is an inner reality wherever we may happen to dwell physically.
Like the desert Ammas and Abbas, each one of us here knows in our soul what it is to seek God's Word.
In our longing for union with God, we all know the experience of paging through scriptures and reflecting on various kinds of religious and spiritual writings.
Through the Word, we ourselves reach for that deep intersection with the Divine.
We long for the Holy Spirit in these writings to quench our thirst so that we may grow, so that we may expand our hearts in blessing to others.
We do this not only as individuals.
As a community, we are desert dwellers together.
As a communion of saints and seekers, we are called to interiorize the Word together.
As a communal soul, in this spacious, quiet sanctuary, we can interiorize the syllables, the words, the images and the feeling of today's Gospel---
we can allow the story of Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus to wrap around our hearts as we long for spiritual growth and ongoing discernment~~
In tonight's Gospel, Mary kneels at Jesus' feet and says, "Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
We know Mary's grief. We ourselves have loved and have lost.
In heartache Mary draws near to Jesus who is present.
The Loving Teacher is right there with her. In her midst. Close to her.
Jesus sees her weeping and sees all the others weeping.
He himself is deeply moved. His heart is open.
It is when he is invited to go see Lazarus, Jesus too begins to weep.
Together, in one another's presence, they all feel the loss.
Though broken, they are sharing the same heart.
The heart they share is the heart we share today. It's the same heart.
Across time, across expansive deserts, we are bound together in the human heart softened by humble divine presence. The words on the page are alive.
They are real. They correspond immediately with our lived experience.
This is a glimpse of what it is to interiorize the Word.
The Holy Spirit is actively touching and quenching in these moments.
The desert Ammas inspire us to be drawn to the desert so that our hearts are made soft and are made expansive and are transformed.
The desert Ammas inspire us to leave the desert and greet our heartsick sisters and brothers wherever they are, whoever they are.
The desert Ammas are our sisters in the Communion of Saints calling us to a Christ inspired self-love; a self-love out of which to bless the world so that deserts are transformed into gardens and tears are turned into dancing.
The desert is never meant to be a permanent dwelling place and never meant to be a permanent inner spiritual experience.
The humble, divine Teacher will always say,
"Take away the stone."
"Let her go."