This meditation is a continuation of the "sacred geography of Lent" about which I wrote last week. If we are to understand the significance of being in the spiritual desert of Lent, then we must understand why the desert experience is used to describe Lent.
Pope Benedict preached on Ash Wednesday (February 13, 2013) these words:
"First of all, the desert, where Jesus withdraws, is a place of silence, of poverty, where man is deprived of all material support and is faced with the fundamental questions of life, he is prompted to examine that which is most essential, and hence it is easier to meet God. But the desert is also a place of death, because where there is no water there is no life, and it is a place of solitude, where man feels temptation more intensely. Jesus goes into the desert, and there undergoes the temptation to leave the path indicated by God the Father, to follow other, easier and worldly paths (cf. Lk 4:1-13). And so he bears our temptations, takes upon himself our misery, to defeat the Evil one and open us to the way towards God, the way of conversion."
A desert is usually defined as an arid, dry place, as Pope Benedict says, a place with no water. For this reason, it is sparsely populated and often remote or isolated. But any isolated or semi- isolated place can be called a desert. When I was in Venice, Italy, my Franciscan host took me to an island outside of Venice called "St. Francis in the Desert" or simply "The Desert." It is said that St. Francis stayed on this island once when in Venice to get away from all the distractions and noise of that city.
Today that island is not on the usual public "water bus" route. We took a private boat to a semi-deserted island, with a few buildings and a church. The rest were trees and bushes all surrounded by water. In the 19th century an English visitor and his lady boated to "St. Francis in the Desert." He later wrote:
|Cloister at St. Francis in the Desert" Venice|
‘How lonely,’ so she said, ‘how still, how fair!
Tell me the story why they call this place
"St. Francis of the Desert." Silent air,
And silent light sleep here, and silent space.’
All pleased, but most the silent solitude;
The still Franciscan walking slow and grave,
The absent life wherein no cares intrude,
Obedient, chaste and poor--alone with sea
And sky and clouds and winds and God's still voice;
Unvexed by the clamorous world, and free
For worship and for work, to die or to rejoice.
Stopford A. Brooke
The desert "is a place of solitude" says the Pope. In other word, a place where one may feel alone or be alone. I would say that any desert is a place with few distractions as opposed to the city or civilization. Because of this, the desert does make one face the fundamental needs and questions of life.
But most of all, the desert–at least the dry kind–can have the threat of death hanging over it. One may think, "Am I going to get out of here alive?" It is often the place of temptation, or testing, and there is no guarantee that the test will go well. The "spiritual version" of this is when we find our selves in some kind of crisis, some invitation to let go of old ways that are harming us, a time of personal suffering, of "letting go." We often do not welcome such times "in the desert" and most of them are involuntary.
In Mark’s version of Jesus in the desert it says: Then the Spirit drove him out [forced him] into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him." (Mark 1:12-13)
We would only have half the picture of the desert, however, if all we saw was the hardship and the dying ("letting go"). The desert can also be a very beautiful place. One website on the desert says: "The desert often invokes images of a vast expanse, a timeless space of beauty, wonder and longing. Many come to the desert to commune with a higher power or the forces of nature. Indeed, for much poetry about the desert was an allegory for a spiritual quest." (www.squidoo.com/desert-beauty)
Some people choose to live in the desert. A whole movement in the early Church inspired men and women to go and live apart from the city and in the desert. This was the prototype of monasticism. Others, like Blessed Charles de Foucauld, voluntarily lived in the solitude of the desert, seeking God and loving neighbor.
The "spiritual desert" of Lent allows us to go into the desert voluntarily. In other words, "on our own terms." By fasting and eliminating some of our distractions, by attentive prayer and some silence and solitude, by hearing the Scripture Readings and liturgies of Lent, we can think about the most fundamental questions of life. I like to think of the voluntary desert journey as a way of preparing for those inevitable times of involuntary desert crises. But the big lesson for me on the approaching First Sunday of Lent is that Jesus goes into the desert and is tested and this also means Jesus can be found in the desert–in our desert, to help us always.