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 Second Week of Lent:
Dread and Delight
by William McNamara
The desert evokes our latent capacity for exploration, interrupting our ordinary patterns of life and our routine piety. We learn to be still, alert, and recollected; issues become clearer. We see real things, not mere shadows; experience events, not a succession of pseudo-events; know ourselves, not projected images of ourselves. We know God, not abstractions about God, not even the theology of God, but the much more mysterious God of theology: the God of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and John, of the Fathers and Mothers of the desert, the God of saints and the God of sinners.
Desert spirituality means much more than getting out of the “rat race.” Even the human Jesus needed times set apart for solitary prayer. Deep down in everyone is an ineluctable need to recognize God’s sovereignty. We need to turn directly to God and suspend our horizontal relations with others.
We are not fully alive until we respond to the periodic need to turn from passing human activities and stand alone before God. This is the wisdom of the desert. The desert is the place where we encounter God, the place where God visits his people. No wonder the tradition of desert spirituality has endured.
The complexity of civilization vanishes in the desert. Life is reduced to a few simple decisions, and a wrong decision may be fatal. Fully living is a full-time job. The desert is no place for distractions, luxuries, or trivia.
The only way to God is the way of the real. The desert shatters our managerial complacency, our spiritual torpor, our dalliance with the “pretty poison” of life, and forces us into conjunction with the starkness of the real, evoking our unadulterated humanness. The central, pervading atmosphere of the desert is death, but the desert is not always bleak. Its beauty is spectacular. The life in tenacious trees, blooming cactuses, and wildflowers is as startling as the death you find in dry creek beds, sun-bleached bones, and blowing “dust devils.”
The desert experience is not all darkness and dread but light and joy. The manifestation of God’s glory is an indispensable element in the desert experience of both the Jewish and Christian Testaments. Yahweh didn’t call his people out of Egypt and into the desert for nothing, but for nothing but God, the All, to live fully and exuberantly in the divine milieu of the Promised Land. This is the recurrent biblical theme of the Passover, the Pascha Christi, expressed with blazing clarity in the Christian Gospels.