We are less than a week away from the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday is on February 13 this year). Several years ago, a statement from the Vatican on Lent and Easter caught my imagination:
"The annual Lenten season is the fitting time to climb the holy mountain of Easter." ("On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts," no.6)I already had my spiritual imagination inspired for many years by the desert imagery of Lent. In fact the Catechism states: "By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert." (#540; emphasis added)
These two images: the Desert of Lent and the Mountain of Easter suggest that there is a "sacred geography" of the Lenten journey that leads to the heights of Easter. However, this journey is a pilgrimage, not through a physical landscape, but rather through a spiritual "soul-scape," an "inner landscape," if you will, which is shaped by the Biblical imagery and geography used in Lent.
I Google-searched "sacred geography" and found this quote about what I am getting at:
"The routes devised for pilgrimages to sacred places, whether natural or built, were another kind of sacred geography. All ancient pilgrimage routes are choreographed so that pilgrims get glimpses of the holy destination from certain points along the way, or else the route takes them by places where miracles or other events associated with the pilgrimage are said to have taken place."
(Paul Devereux, "Mindscapes: The Varieties of Sacred Geography," Noetic Now Journal, Issue Three, October 2010)
The First Sunday of Lent begins the desert imagery of Lent: "Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil." (Luke 4:1)
An excerpt from a Benedictine website captures many of the themes of what the desert represents in our Christian tradition:
"The desert can be a setting for deepened, renewed inner life, but it can as easily be life-threatening. The desert demands decisions, choices, and we have to make the right ones or our lives are in danger. In the desert we are stripped down to essentials....
"It is a place where one cannot hide from one’s own truth. The desert is also the place of the greatest closeness to God....The desert in this biblical and spiritual sense is never a place to stay. It is a situation to go through…you journey on and out....
"When Jesus was praying at the time of his baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him…he was led by the Spirit into the desert….There he remained forty days. When the devil left Jesus alone, Angels came and ministered to him. The desert of temptation became the mountain of paradise....
"The desert experience is our spiritual purification for a new life of freedom and love in the land that God will show us. Like the Prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:16) the Lord God promised Israel that they will be led into the wilderness, where God will speak to [their] heart..."
I have never lived in an actual desert but I have visited the desert of the soul many times. Those are the times when felt like I was in some dry and lifeless place, confronting the excesses of my life; the times of getting free from some addiction enslaving my soul, weighing it down. These times were always invitations to die to something to which I was too attached.. This is because these times are like the actual physical desert: a place where one cannot carry a lot of baggage; a place that demands that one pay attention to what is essential for life: water, food, shelter. But it also can be a place where distraction is stripped away and there is an opportunity to finally be silent and listen to God.
The Psalmist laments:
"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water." (Psalm 63:1)
Yet the desert is precisely where life-giving waters are most appreciated. "On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink’". (John 7:37)