Desert Fathers
Chris Matthis

A postcard came in the mail. It was of Salvation Mountain, a painted pile of junk and debris in the California desert. Constructed of concrete, adobe, deadwood, and scrap metal, Salvation Mountain stands over three stories tall, painted over with pictures of flowers, hearts, Bible verses, and the word “love.” Words painted on a large, red heart read, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.” And atop the mountain, beneath a partly-cloudy sky, is a wooden cross.

Charles, one of the members at my former congregation, sent me the postcard after making a pilgrimage to the site. When he returned to Colorado after his snowbird months in Arizona, he could not help but speak of what he had seen and heard. “This man, Leonard Knight, built the whole thing himself.” “He used over 100,000 gallons of paint.” “He lives off sandwiches and other donations that people bring him.” “He doesn’t charge a thing—just asks that people give him more paint.” And finally, “This man, Leonard, he devoted his entire life to Jesus Christ. Now, isn’t that something?”

Yes, isn’t it now. Leonard “devoted his entire life to Jesus.” But isn’t that also what I have done as a Christian pastor? And isn’t that what all believers do when they live out their vocations as godly callings from the Lord Jesus to serve their neighbors?

Salvation Mountain

I must admit, I was skeptical about Leonard Knight. Is Salvation Mountain more shrine or environmental disaster? Admittedly, I haven’t visited Salvation Mountain personally, even though the official website encourages me to do so: “Salvation Mountain must be seen to be fully appreciated as those who have made the journey will attest.” One famous visitor is actor-director Sean Penn, although to the best of my knowledge he remains unconverted.

At Charles’s insistence, I watched A Lifetime of Childlike Faith, a thirty-minute DVD about Leonard’s life. The interviews with Leonard only reinforced my belief that Salvation Mountain isn’t quite as grand as some would believe. Since 1984, Leonard has lived out of his truck, camping by the man-made mountain. The septuagenarian is lean and long-limbed with skin leathered by the sun and desert wind. He is a simple man, and his simple proclamation sounds a lot like the Bible-thumping, fundamentalist preachers I heard growing up in Pentecostal churches—except that Leonard says it more gently with a smile.

But how much good has he actually done for anyone by building his monumental mess in the middle of the desert? How many people have come to faith and been saved by the big, red heart? How many hungry people have been fed or poor people clothed by Leonard and his desert monstrosity? To me the Mountain seems like the inevitable aberration of Christian pop culture and misdirected Evangelical fervor. But perhaps I am not a true believer.

Leonard’s story reminds me of Saint Simeon the Stylite. Simeon lived in Egypt during the later years of the Roman Empire. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the formerly outlawed religion became chic, and everyone who was anyone got baptized in order to curry favor with the court. As Christianity became mass culture and ho-hum, many new believers seemed to be trying on the faith for size rather than living the life of fully-devoted disciples. And so Simeon longed for a hermetic existence in the desert, away from the world, away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Alexandria and those who were uninitiated into the deeper realities of Christian faith.

So, like Leonard Knight, Saint Simeon retreated to the desert. He lived in the cleft of a cave until an audience of admirers and pressing pilgrims drove him even further out into the wilderness. This time Simeon built a style, an eight-foot pole with a little platform on top. Perched atop his style, Simeon ate, slept, and prayed for the remainder of his life. His strange antics attracted the attention of other desert monks, and word spread about the acrobatic, weather-worn squatter. Soon Simeon could not escape the throngs of people asking him for advice and prayer. A ladder was constructed, and people ascended and descended to bring him food and deliver letters from the emperor and faraway bishops. So much for getting away!

Simeon seemed to inspire and amaze everyone who met him. But what did the Stylite actually accomplish? How did his sitting serve his neighbor? Was he not much like stuntman and illusionist David Blaine, who for forty days and nights was suspended over the River Thames in a Plexiglas box, eating and sleeping on display?

As a Christian pastor, I wonder why so many people are inspired by men like Leonard Knight and Simeon. What is it about our world that half-crazed desert prophets still capture our imaginations? Why can’t we find purpose and sense the holiness in the regular routines into which God calls us? As a Lutheran, I cannot ignore Martin Luther’s infamous and witty wisecracks against the monks of his own day. Doesn’t a mother changing a dirty diaper do a better work than the monk who crawls around praying in his cowl all day?

According to Luther’s theology of vocation, we are more likely to encounter God hiding behind the face of our neighbor who needs our service than we are in a monastery or the desert. Our vocations are “masks” that God uses to veil his glory as we encounter him in the ordinary, everyday world of parenting, teaching, banking, cooking, preaching—or whatever work God has given us.

Only by leaving the monastery and entering the university as a professor of theology did Luther begin to “make a difference” in the world. Rather than camping out on a man-made ­mountain or perching on a style in the desert, we must seek God where he has promised to be found: in our neighbors’ needs. As Jesus says in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40, ESV).

But my friend, Pastor John Thieme, insists that the Christian Church needs both “monks” and “missionaries” to maintain the tension between the cultic and evangelical dimensions of our faith. These are not literal monastics and evangelists, but special “bents” within the body of believers. We need “monks,” that is, people who pray, worship, and reflect on the deeper theological truths of the faith. Loving God with all their mind, they have much to teach us. But we also need “missionaries” with evangelical fervor who constantly remind us of the urgency to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19), leading us into fields white for harvest. Most of us in between struggle to thrive at either of these poles. Both are necessary.

Perhaps we pew-sitters and “pulpiteers” could use a few Simeons and Leonards (along with the Wesleys and Billy Graham) to teach us how to pray. A little solitude and sanctuary could do us all a bit of good. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales everyone from a serial wife to a cook, a knight, a miller, a merchant, a lawyer, and a priest were counted among those “folk” who “long to go on pilgrimage.”

And even Jesus the Son of God sought out lonely places to pray and meditate without the demands of the pressing crowds (Matt. 14:13; Mark 1:45; Luke 5:16). Without such retreats, the ever-human Jesus might have burnt out. I too have been blessed by camping for a few days at mountain lakes or hiking alone to pray and clear my head. In fact, during college, while on a retreat with my InterVarsity chapter to the Upper Peninsula and shores of Lake Huron, I finally decided to “give in” to my soul’s urging to go to seminary and become a pastor. There’s nothing like cold, gray water and shivering pines—or ­desert sands—to stir your soul into action.

But such retreats are just that—retreats. Rather than surrender to the solitude, they are brief reprieves to refresh us before the return to community and the loving service to which God calls us. When, after a hard day’s work, Jesus’ disciples interrupted his prayers in a lonely place and complained, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (1:37–38). Jesus didn’t come to pray, but to preach. He spent time in prayer so he would be empowered to preach the Good News.

Christians often say, “We are in the world, but not of it.” That’s true. The Church is truly ekklesia, literally, “called out” of the world. But we are not called to form a Christian club or operate as lone rangers in the wilderness around Salvation Mountain. We are called out of the world, then sent back into it. We are sent for the world with the saving message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). He sends us to our schools, office cubicles, and the grocery store, bearing in us the light of Christ and his love. As we go about our daily lives, we bear Christ in us, bringing him to everyone we meet, most often without realizing it. Usually, it is by accident that you “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

Even I must admit that monks like St. Simeon and Leonard Knight have something to offer, even if I struggle to grasp what it may be. But ordinarily, we best love our neighbor by doing what God enables us to do here and now with our time and talents. Christ calls us to our various vocations to serve him by serving others. The banker, butcher, and businesswoman have just as much to do for the Kingdom of God as the preacher in the pulpit or the desert monk—maybe more. On any given Sunday, as I look out upon my parishioners, I behold a mighty force for the Kingdom of God. When we work and play where God plants us, our entire life becomes one of devoted service to Christ. Now, isn’t that something? Indeed it is.


Chris Matthis is the pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Castle Rock, Colorado. A large butte and horse pasture are visible through his office window—his own Salvation Mountain?

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