We are now 34 days into Lent, and as a gay, non-institutional Christian, I observe Lent in my own way each year.
As I mentioned in my last essay, I have been making a series of radical changes in my life in recent weeks, removing various forms of stimulus, depriving myself of much outside contact, changing my relationship to technology, attending to my diet and micronutrient intake, and more. While not a legalistic fasting ritual one would find in the Orthodox tradition, I do what actually works for me and calls me to an elevated perspective on life.
In Self Reliance, Emerson defines prayer as “the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.”
To me, Lent’s call to fasting and prayer is supposed to evoke precisely this sort of contemplation.
For the last decade of my life, I have hesitated to write about explicitly Christian themes or overtly analyze Christian texts. Nonetheless, anybody who has read my writing will not be surprised at me “outing” myself as a Christian here. My work is always peppered with references to the Christian and Hebrew scriptures, and my early childhood intellectual formation was, first and foremost, the King James Bible: the Epistles of Paul, the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, and Ecclesiastes above all.
What follows is my own rewriting of the 4th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel based on years of thinking and rethinking the Biblical texts during both meditation and under altered mind states induced by psychedelics.
(I am, as it turns out, “outing” myself as a proponent of psychedelic experiences as well. The Overton Window has expanded rapidly during the past 9 years since I began my psychonautic journey, and while it is hardly a mainstream experience, the publication of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and his Netflix documentary series by the same name, have at least brought psychedelics into the public discourse, and the research is rapidly validating the therapeutic use of psychedelics for an ever-broadening range of psychological disorders. If you haven’t seen the series, and know little about the topic, I highly recommend it as a starting point.)
This passage is the story of the first Lent, Jesus’s fasting and prayer in the wilderness as a process of personal clarification and mental preparation for the challenges that would eventually lead to his execution by crucifixion at the hand of the Romans and with the consent and laudation of his own people.
According to my understanding of the story, we are reading of the final step in the psycho-spiritual transformation of Jesus the Man into Christ the Messiah, that is, the debate within him of whether to take the path of principle or the way of convenience, the road less traveled or the road of worldly power and prestige — a debate that, in his case, leads to the victory of good over evil within his heart and mind and propels him to his destiny on the Cross.
Then Jesus was moved by the voice of the Spirit of GOD who lived inside of him, and which lives in all of us, to go into the wilderness, where he was put on trial by the devil, who also lived inside of him, and lives now in all of us.
And after He had been fasting for forty days and forty nights, he obviously was very hungry, and most likely had a severe headache. It would not be surprising if he was also hallucinating.
At this point he heard the prosecutorial voice of evil in his ears, testing him, saying, “If You are the Son of GOD, turn these stones into bread and eat them, and you will not be hungry anymore.”
But Jesus reminded himself, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by LOGOS, or the universal reasoning which is the voice of GOD within.’ ”
Then the evil voice spoke to him as he overlooked Jerusalem (which means, literally, the city of Peace), and his eyes fixed on the pinnacle of the temple, and Jesus heard “If You are the Son of GOD, why don’t you just throw Yourself down and see if GOD saves you. Don’t you remember the words of the 91st Psalm—
‘GOD’s angels are watching over you and holding you in their hands, and they won’t let you even cut your foot on a rock,’
Jesus, knowing this was not the point of those words, and knowing this argument was taken completely out of context, reminded himself “It is written, ‘Don’t put GOD on trial — you’re in no place to judge the complexity of EVERYTHING, of which you have no way of having a comprehensive understanding.’ ”
The voice of evil persisted in his head as he climbed to even higher elevations in the mountains, and as Jesus looked at everything, the vastness of lands and kingdoms that stretched to the horizon, he thought “If only I were to abandon my principles, I could have it all, and easily. I’m intelligent, charismatic, people trust me, and if I just weren’t hindered by these stupid ethics, I really could have it all and be the greatest, most powerful man who ever lived.”
Then Jesus shouted out loud, “Get out of my head, asshole! There is only GOD, and GOD is everything, and you are here because of all of it, not just a part. So you have to serve all of it, not just your own narrow interests. You will never be satisfied with yourself or at peace by taking the easy path and using your skills only for yourself and your own aggrandizement.’ ”
Then his mind was clear, and his heart was at peace, and he was no longer tormented by the voice of evil.
The Wilderness, as a metaphor, is the vocational crisis experienced by everybody who has decided not to live in mere reaction to our animal biology and its constant demands, or as slaves to human society and its nagging norms.
The Wilderness is where Elijah found himself in his own vocational crisis, running from his political enemies.
The Wilderness is where Lot was forced to go to escape the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (you didn’t expect the gay guy to make that reference, did you?)
The Wilderness is where Jonah ended up, both in the belly of the whale and even after he had successfully evoked the repentance of the people of Nineveh.
The Wilderness is where John the Baptist sought refuge from the absurdity and noise of the corrupted culture into which he was born.
The Wilderness is where Moses led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and as the transitional mode of living on the way back to their homeland in Palestine.
The Wilderness is where Abraham’s faith was tested and he proved himself true to the GOD of Life, rightly concluding that the true GOD would not ask him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
And so, the Wilderness is also where we find Jesus being put on trial as he contemplates his own mission in this world.
Anyone who chooses to abandon 9-5 work, or to live by principle and service to others rather than service to the Moloch of capitalism, or to live from their own inner creative spirit rather than for merely material gain — anyone who chooses any path of nonconformity will at some point find themselves in one or another Wilderness, literally, metaphorically, or both.
I speak from an excess of experience on the matter.
In 2005, when I was confronted with the decision of coming out of the closet as gay, I knew I was facing a complete restart of my life. I knew it meant abandoning my life-long political ambitions and networking in conservative politics, and walking away from virtually all of my childhood and adolescent dreams and goals. I have written more extensively about this story (link), but that decision-point took me to the backcountry Wilderness of Alaska.
From 2010-2012 (plus a little), I lived in the Andes mountains in Chile in a house with intermittent running water, eating beans and rice, faced again with the vocational crisis of the Wilderness.
Now I find myself at last emerging from yet another lengthy period of wandering in the Wilderness, this one more psychologically and less physically demanding (and demeaning), but a Wilderness nonetheless. This one was different because the physical environment fooled me into thinking things were far more okay than they actually were, and for much longer than I could have imagined possible. One usually only realizes such painful truths in hindsight, unfortunately.
My three wildernesses have, in seeming reverse order, paralleled the “temptations” faced by Christ in those much shorter 40 days of the first Lent.
I will attempt to further interpret them through my own experiences in the hope of showing the near-universality of these trials, and provide some modicum of hope that they do eventually subside for those who persist; that those nagging voices of negativity can finally depart, and life can be restored to splendor and joy.
My goal is not to itemize and provide a clean, categorical distinction between the temptations, but to amplify the overall meaning and underlying message. The details need not be overfit to each specific component of the biblical narrative.
I must walk my own path, and you must walk yours. The similarities between us, and to Jesus’s path will be in pattern and not literal point-by-point matches. To attempt any other exegesis would be to commit the sin of idolatry of the letter, which Paul says “kills.”
“The Spirit,” however, “gives Life”.
Stones into Bread = Give Up on Higher Meaning & Inner Truth; Accept that Ends justify Means
Throw Yourself off the Mountain and Let GOD Save You = Do Nothing & See If Anybody Really Cares.
Be Slightly (or Totally) Evil = The Ways of Worldly Power are Easier than Principle & Service
When I was faced with the choice of coming out as gay or remaining in the closet, I knew what the truth was likely to cost me: nearly everything. I agonized over the decision for months before I made my trip to Alaska. I thought about how easy it would be to find a wife for show, pretend to have a nice, pretty family, be militantly homophobic in my policy advocacy, and throw everybody off the trail. Surely it had been done since time immemorial. I wouldn’t have been the first, and surely wouldn’t be the last.
As a contemplated this possibility, I could not help but consider the consequences to the other people involved. How would my future wife feel if she found out the truth one day? What if it drove her crazy and she outed me later, or worse, committed suicide? Could I live with such a thing on my conscience?
Even if my hypothetical wife were in on the scheme, what about my children? Would they ever forgive me, or her? Would this lie not merely be the substitute of the quite legitimate, present-oriented suffering of honesty for an extraordinary, illegitimate pain of the eventual reckoning?
Frank Underwood in fiction, and Mike Pence (I have it on trustworthy authority — I was quite involved in politics and still know a lot of people) in stranger-than-fiction have since proven to me that I made the correct decision. To be a murderous psychopath like Spacey’s Underwood, or carry water for a lunatic like Donald Trump in order to be within striking distance of the closest thing to temporal omnipotence as is available — what in the world could possibly be worth the psychospiritual consequences of those paths?
It turns out, of course that the list of such psychopaths doing this very thing is much longer than anybody ever realized. From Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp (Link) to Yasser Arafat, the list of gay men hiding from their truth behind raw political power grows longer as more of history comes to light.
Indeed, I concluded for myself, long before knowing of these cautionary tales, that Jesus was unavoidably right:
“What should it profit a man should he gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” or, as otherwise phrased by Emerson in Self Reliance, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
Would I have come to that conclusion anywhere but the foot of Mount Denali? Could I have heard clearly the voice of GOD within speaking to me amidst the noise of my friends and family and daily life?
It seems more than unlikely.
It seems absolutely impossible that I could have come to it any other way than the hair-breadth brush with a grizzly bear mother and her cub, or the exigencies of near-fatal river crossings and the subsequent words of Scott Peck’s The Different Drum in the shadows of the glaciers on the Kenai Peninsula.
The simple clarity of the voice of GOD in Jesus’s head “it is written…” can only be achieved by shutting out all other voices. As one of my favorite poems observes:
“...Makes him lonely, that only GOD’s high messages can reach him.”
When I found myself again in the wilderness in 2010, this time at the near opposite end of the world, I was at my literal wits’ end. Vexed by the feeling of total and catastrophic failure in life, having gone from a paper net worth in the millions when I lived in Texas, to my parched hell in the Andes, I lived with the daily prospect of killing myself as what I perceived as my only means of escape.
I could not see how it was possible to get out of my situation in any other way. From my perspective at the time, there was also little point of trying. Having grown up with the fantasy of extraordinary worldly achievement at a very young age, my window for setting age-related records had already closed in many categories, and to my prideful arrogance at the time, what was the point of attempting an achievement if somebody had already reached it?
What distinction would it bring me?
I understand now in retrospect that this was a form of existential bargaining with death. For many people, and especially men, immortality is approximated by history-worthy achievement. I was infected with this disease of mind myself until psychedelic experiences would eventually relieve me of my fear of death and particularly death-in-obscurity. Once I felt a direct connection to, and myself part of, the Divine order and its own immortality, I no longer felt the pressure to strive for the attention of future historians and general notoriety. That, however, would only come years later.
At that moment, though, all I could think of was driving my car off the cliffs on the way to my house every day that I went into the city. If I survived the fall and crash, then I was meant to live. If I didn’t then I was meant to die. I needed to know if GOD would save me, or if anybody else even cared about me enough to convince me otherwise.
Existential bargaining is hell on earth.
Ironically, it was the 91st Psalm itself which saved me from my madness. The Order for Compline in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer was my daily companion in the depths of that despair, and the 91st Psalm (which the voice of evil mis-quotes in the story of Jesus in the Wilderness) is part of that liturgical prayer.
GOD says, through the Psalmist: “Because he has set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him. I will lift him up because he knows my name.”
These words spared me enough to rediscover the work of Søren Kierkegaard and in particular, to discover for the first time his own private prayers, as recorded in his personal journals. They were never meant for public consumption, and were written in reflection to salve his own pain and struggle. This made them real to me, more real than all of the psychobabble and shallow comforts of the platitudes of my friends that they were “there for me”, that “things would get better”, that I just needed to do this or that, come back to normal life, get a job, heal from my traumas, etc.
(I shall quote at length and you can skip it for now and come back later if you are short on time.)
Father in Heaven! Great is Thin infinite kingdom. Thou who nearest the weight of the stars and who governest the forces of the world through immense spaces; numberless as the sands are those who have life and being through Thee. And yet, Thou hearest the cry of all the creatures, and the cry of man whom Thou hast specially formed. Thou hearest the cry of all men without confusing their mixed voices and without distinguishing one from another in such a way as to play favorites. Thou hearest not only the voice of one who is responsible for many others and so prays to Thee in their name as if his high function could bring him nearer to Thee; Thou hearest not only the voice of the one who prays for dear ones, as if he could thereby attract Thine attention, he who is privileged in having the dear ones; no, Thou hearest also the most miserable, the most abandoned, and most solitary man--in the desert, in the multitude.
And if the forgotten one has separated himself from all others; and if in the crowd he has become unknown--having ceased to be a man except as a number on a list--Thou knowest him. Thou has not forgotten him. Thou rememberest his name; Thou knowest him where he is, retired, hidden in the desert, unperceived in the crowd, in the multitude. And if in the thick shadows of dread, in the prey of terrible thoughts, he was abandoned by men, abandoned almost by the language men speak, still Thou wouldst not have forgotten him. Thou wouldst understand his language.
Thou knowest also how quickly to find a way which leads to him, quick as sound, prompt as light; and if Thou shouldst wait it is not slowness, but wisdom; and if Thou dost wait, it is not slowness, but because Thou only knowest the speed of Thy help; if Thou dost wait, it is not stingy parsimony, but paternal economy which keepest the best things reserved for the child, in a secure place, for a favorable moment. Lord our Father! Man cries to Thee in the day of distress and he gives thanks to THee in the day of joy. Oh how wonderful to give thanks when man understands so easily that Thou art the giver of good and perfect gifts, when even the earthly heart is at once ready to understand and when even earthly prudence speedily consents.
More blessed though it is to give thanks who life becomes a darkened story; more blessed though to give thanks when the heart is oppressed and the soul darkened, when reason is a traitor in its ambiguity and memory is mistaken in its forgetting, when egoism recoils in fright, when human wisdom resists, if not in rebellion then in discouragement--more blessed then to thank God, for the one who thus is thankful truly loves God. He dares to say to Thee, Thou all knowing God: Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest I love Thee.
I certainly felt myself as lost and forgotten, separated from GOD and all help. But Kierkegaard gave me hope, hope that help would find me as I needed it, right when I needed it; that I had not been abandoned or forgotten, that I was the one being put on trial, and that I didn’t get to defend myself by trying to put GOD on trial instead — a reminder of the fallacious nature of tu quoque, especially when applied to the Divine Universe at-large.
The deliverance did come, and precisely as the result of my suffering, not in spite of it. As I decided that I would live, I became inspired to be of help and service to others, and the ideas for Exosphere began to emerge from the ruins of my two-dimensional financial and political ambitions that I finally buried there in the Andes.
My most recent Wilderness has been a recapitulation of these experiences in some sense, with novel features and tortures, and now at the end, the insights resulting from them.
The cultural bias of modernity has been one of fragmentation. We are told, conditioned, dare I say, totally brainwashed, into thinking the right path is the compartmentalization of so-called ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ life. This makes it ‘easier’.
“Don’t mix business with pleasure,” we are told. Don’t do business with family. Don’t start projects with friends. More vulgarly, “don’t shit where you eat,” the conventional wisdom goes.
Of course what is really going on here is that the values of capitalism are explicitly at odds with all other values and principles. Serve the demands of capital first, if you would want to ‘help’ any other part of your life. That usually means some degree of cruel and inhumane treatment of people who do not deserve it (certainly I reject the vapid notion that all people deserve to be treated with compassion and as as saints no matter how they behave — but that is for another day as I’m already past the 3,000 word mark).
It is of course easier to treat people cruelly and inhumanely when they are only work colleagues. Do business with family, and you might have to cause harm to somebody out of expediency, and why expose your more valued relationships to that possibility?
Sounds reasonable enough — but only if you have already bought into the principle value of capitalism: profit at all cost. That means minimizing costs. Maintaining a relationship is a cost. The logic of capitalism argues it would simply be easier to fragment life and keep those costs at a minimum.
However pragmatic I would like to be, compartmentalization has always been anathema to me. Perhaps this is because I grew up one a family farm with other small-scale, family-owned entrepreneurial enterprises. Or perhaps it is simply that I have never been able to accept arbitrary distinctions: whether these sorts of private fragmentations or the public fragmentation of national borders. All artificial separateness, from my perspective, is destructive to the human spirit and oppressive to life.
The word ‘holiness’ means, literally, ‘wholeness’ or ‘completeness’. Holiness is the opposite of fragmentation.
Both the beginning of my most recent Wilderness period, and its punctuation, have resulted from misadventures in non-conformity to this principle of capitalism. As I have quoted before and will quote until my death, Emerson reminds us that “for nonconformity, the world whips you with its displeasure.”
Were I to have freed myself from my principle of life integration, I might have more easily acquired bread from the marketplace over the years. But I would have been utterly and totally empty inside. Indeed, all attempts to do so (I won’t try to pretend that I haven’t tried it the world’s way), have bereaved me of my motivation entirely.
“I’m doing all of this shit, just for what? Money? Really? All of this suffering just to acquire something I must immediately part ways with — give me fasting in the forest instead. Or let me eat the stones directly.”
As I am coming to terms with these experiences, I see that however difficult it has been to have an integrated life, this is not the mistake to be avoided. Rather, it is part of my ongoing life experiment to forge a way of integrated living that can survive in the broader context of capitalism, which I can do nothing to destroy or stop, and cannot ignore its reality entirely.
I have come to think of it like the attempt to achieve flight. The old saying went that “if man were meant to fly, he’d have been born with wings.”
Yet how much do we owe to those who said “this law of gravity — well, it can’t be broken, but if we understand it well enough, we can bend it to our will. With enough trial and error, we can be airborne as a second nature.”
Were it not for airplanes, I would not know almost any of the people who are in my life. I would never have been able to cover the distances that I have traveled, seen the places that have inspired my best creativity, or come into contact with the people with whom I’ve had the most fulfilling relationships: my husband, my closest friends, my creative collaborators, and hundreds of fascinating characters who have contributed to the formation of my character in one way or another. Living abroad for 15 years, I am grateful that the inventors of airplanes and the engineers who have built modern flight did not see gravity as irreconcilable to their vision.
Likewise, integrated living is a sort of fight against the gravity of human nature and behavior. If we take human behavior at its mean, and treat it as its maximum, it would be pointless to make the attempt. But our mean does not define our potential: it merely illustrates how much we must overcome in order to achieve it.
I have been tempted, to be sure, to give up on the idea. I have thought about how much easier it would be to separate and segregate the spheres of life. Go over there and make a little money. Come back over here to spend it. Take a few pleasures on the cheap, with discounts where they can be found, and content myself with something more ‘normal’.
But I cannot. I know that the friction caused by integrated life has been the primary source of all of my personal growth. To seek to remove that friction would be to surrender the life of growth for a life of ease — and this I think is the chief cause of physical and psychological aging. Whatever is not growing, is dying. As a believer in and servant of the LORD of Life, I must do what I can to delay death as long as is ethically possible, while accepting that, at the end, death is part of life, and refusing to live in fear of it.
That is the supreme paradox of all Wilderness, the one whose balance in the mind leads to all innovation, growth, as well as joy. Always motivated by either fear or love, it is the latter that leads to the highest heights, even if it must first pass through the lowest of lows.
When his feet are torn and bleeding;
Yet his spirit mounts unheeding...
Blazing newer paths and finds;
When the Force that is Divine leaps to challenge every failure,
And His ardour still is sweet -
And love and hope are burning in the presence of defeat!
Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.