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 Fourth Week of Lent:
Fidelity and Espousal
by William McNamara
“Harden not your hearts, as at Meriba, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Psalm 95). Israel put Yahweh to the test in the desert (this is unique to her tradition), yet Yahweh’s love and fidelity never wavered. Essentially, however, the desert is God’s testing ground for humanity. Israel survived her desert experience by outwitting the elements and the emptiness, by abandoning herself to God.
Elijah is a great desert man in biblical history. When Israel regressed and took on the baggage and bondage of the overcivilized Canaanite cities, Elijah walked forty days and nights into the desert. There in eremitical solitude, he became a God-intoxicated man. He resolved the most pressing problems of the Jews with desert directness. Facing the full assembly of his countrymen on Mount Carmel, he lashed out at their indecision with the stringent words: “How long, O Israel, will you limp between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow him! But if Baal, then follow him.”
Elijah was unyielding. He learned the desert’s lesson and clung to it tenaciously. On this bedrock, he took his bold stand: “The Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand” (1 Kings 17:1). These words comprise the shortest autobiography ever written and have remained the charter of all contemplatives ever since, particularly Carmelites, who regard Elijah as their spiritual father.
Elijah not only settled political, social, and moral crises, but even a weather crisis of three years’ drought. He did not escape into the desert; he refueled there. Such a picture may conflict with our preconceived ideas of the contemplative’s role, despite the fact that Thomas Merton wrote so knowledgeably about America’s social predicament. We may think the contemplative is merely pious, unable to survive the hurly-burly of the world. Elijah excoriated kings and their henchmen. He was a wild unstemmable colossus of God, Yahweh’s working model of broad and healthy contemplation integrated into the whole of human life.
Almost a hundred years after Elijah, the prophet Hosea lamented Israel’s tragic infidelity. Recognizing only one possibility for her spiritual regeneration, Hosea urged Israel to return to the desert: “God will espouse you, lead you into the desert, and there speak to your heart” (Hos. 2:14). If Israel returned to the simplicity of the desert, forgoing the luxuries of Canaan, Hosea believed she would recognize again the spouse of her youth. Hosea’s acclamation is a cogent summation of the whole spiritual life.
There you have biblical spirituality in a nutshell: God in search of humanity, taking the initiative, making the overtures. God leads us into the desert, away from small passions, frivolous pleasures and vapid peace, out of the mazes of the mind, beyond symbols and words, so that we might discover the Signified, the Word unspoken, in the darkness that veils the source of Being. There in desert emptiness, as in the virginal emptiness of Mary, God speaks to the heart.