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 Third Week of Lent:
From Purgation to Paradise
by William McNamara
The divine summons is a call into wilderness to recover the life of paradise after suffering temptation in desert solitude. The Transfiguration recounted in the Gospels was a confirmation of Christ’s fidelity to his desert vocation. His perseverance led him to death on Mount Calvary, the culmination of the desert vocation, and to Resurrection, the vindication of his desert life and sacrificial death.
Jesus’ disciples were unable to see all the implications of his teaching in their own lives because they were reluctant to suffer. After the Resurrection, they embraced the real desert: a long, arduous trek through purgation into Paradise. This experience begins with the free, deliberate decision to suffer and ends with the uproariously happy surprise of being in harmony with the universe, in the glory of God’s presence and incalculably in love with all that is.
The classic encounter of God and Israel in the desert occurs in the story of the Exodus. Only God could motivate the reluctant Moses: “If you please, Lord, send someone else…. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past, nor recently, nor now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:14,10). Moses led Israel out of captivity in Egypt into the harsh desert to find God in whose name he spoke. In the Sinai Desert, Israel could not hide from Yahweh as she could in the fields of Egypt and the cities of Canaan. Exposed to God’s holy scrutiny in blazing empty expanses, she discovered her destiny.
The desert’s call requires a passionate response without reservation or bargaining. Yahweh is a desert God: Israel must deal with him on his own terms. Three central events in the history of Israel occurred in the desert, accompanied by “marvels” and miracles: God made a covenant with Israel, revealed the Holy Name, and gave Israel the Ten Commandments,
God led the Israelites through the dreadful wilderness of Sinai into the paradise of the Promised Land. He stripped them of securities and superfluities, but by revealing his Holy Name, he communicated divine power, a source of unfailing help. The whole covenant hinged on this intimate act of personal and profound trust.
The Israelites failed to trust Yahweh in the wilderness. They substituted the Golden Calf for the ineffable Name, seeking to shorten their time of suffering by resorting to human expedience dressed up with religious veneer. They needed to confront their propensity toward infidelity and grasp once again the meaning of their true desert calling: complete dependence on God alone.