On Ash Wednesday, Christians inaugurate the sacred season of Lent, 40 days of reflection and “purification” to prepare us for Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. For your daily reflection over these 40 days, we’ll post meditations Tessa Bielecki edited from “The Desert Experience,” an essay by William McNamara, founder of the Spiritual Life Institute and one of her earliest spiritual mentors.
Week One focuses on the essence of the desert and Week Two on the wisdom we learn in the desert when “the complexity of civilization vanishes.” Week Three explores our “long, arduous trek through purgation into Paradise.” Week Four introduces the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Hosea and the themes of fidelity and espousal.
The fifth week of Lent examines the desert in the Christian Testament and those we call the “Fathers and Mothers of the Desert.” The sixth and final week describes “the desert today” and how the season of Lent and periodic retreats, especially in the wilderness, embody the “desert experience.”
The First Week of Lent:
The Essence of the Desert
by William McNamara
The desert is a challenge, an invitation to a contest: whether or not we can come to terms with the bare and undiminished facts of reality — the reality of our deluded and denatured selves, our devastated and dehumanized world, and the reality of God. We are not expected to master the elements of the desert, but if we would cope with them, we had better master ourselves. The candor and honesty of the desert tend inexorably to break through our masks, illusions, and deceits.
We need to stand in the desert under the noonday sun and see things as they really are: not managed, dominated, and packaged, but wild, uncontrollable, and free. We need this confrontation with the wild, untamed forces of nature. We have trifled too long in the genteel tradition. We have not dug deeply enough. We have slipped too easily into a spinsterish concern for the pretty instead of the beautiful, for happiness instead of fullness and truth. We have come to think of the natural world as a condition instead of a great force, and we are content to experience it only superficially.
By managing nature we may to some extent discipline it. We may also, in the process of becoming human, shift somewhat the emphases in its complex of impulses and powers. But we cannot dispense with the wilderness without becoming near-machines and therefore less, not more, than the animal we try to transcend. And so our human-centered humanism backfires and dehumanizes us
The desert is a place where an egotistic and complacent humanism will not do. It will undo us. We must come to terms actively with the negative forces within ourselves. The Word of God calls us to take the initiative against our own negativity. For “original sin” is not just an isolated difficulty or an occasional failure: it means that our whole life was once organized for disaster.
The Israelites wanted to gratify their negative inclinations. St. Paul did not seem as concerned about any particular form of disorder as he was about the essence of disorder: a general, pervasive disorientation, rather than a specific act. Our central human thrust is often subtly but decisively misdirected.
Our whole life may be based on the principles and alternatives of the old world to which Christ, the New Man, has already laid the axe. Persisting in this stubborn effort to stuff God into the religious projections of an unreal world compounds the absurdities of the world. The cure, ceremonially, is baptism; existentially, the desert experience. In response to the Spirit we must take the initiative in renewing our lives. God has this in mind when he calls us into the desert.