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 Fifth Week of Lent:
Desert Fathers and Mothers
by William McNamara
Jesus is an archetypal desert man. He was not essentially the man for others, although he selflessly expended himself for others. Rather, he was essentially the man from the Other, the Wholly Other. He was silent and solitary, going out into the desert, onto the sea and the mountaintops, compelled by the Wholly Other’s absorbing presence. This Presence empowered him to be the man for others.
After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted three times: by economic power, political power, and spiritual power. This experience was not a temporary retreat but a decisive cosmic struggle. To persevere in this conflict, remaining utterly poor and dependent on God alone — this is the essence of the wilderness life, even if it unfolds far from the physical desert.
After St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, he went straight to the Arabian desert and spent a long time there. The full meaning of his vocation could not be penetrated unless he returned to the traditional source of spiritual strength, the place where we meet God. Only after Paul had steeled himself by prolonged retreat in the desert did he plunge into his exhausting apostolic endeavors in the crowded bustling cities.
The desert tradition continued among the Desert Fathers and Mothers who abandoned the cities of the ancient world to live in solitude. By the fourth century, the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia teemed with hermits in quest of what today we term authenticity, integrity or wholeness. The desert hermits refused to drift along as pawns of a decadent conventional society, but they were not escapists. They were like the valiant fish who jump out of their natural, comfortable habitat, leap into the air, and drink in the oxygen. The hermits’ flight into the desert was positive, not negative and fearful.
The desert Fathers and Mothers ultimately sought their most authentic selves. They rejected their false selves, fabricated under the crazy compulsions and values of the world. They chose an unmapped way to God. In the arid desert, they were weaned away from their old images and ideas of God, and readied for what the desert is always meant to disclose: the unknown God in the cloud of unknowing.
They went into the desert to pray, to feed on God. What was at the heart of their experience? Death: no attachment to their own egos or their own desires, plans, or achievements; no identification with their superficial, impermanent, narcissistic selves. They had to die to the values of an ephemeral existence as Christ had died to them on the cross, and rise from the dead with him in the light of an intensely new wisdom.