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.”
Daily Readings for the Season of Lent
by William McNamara
The desert is not merely a natural phenomenon, but a way of life. Without the desert experience, we cannot achieve our destiny or fulfill our human vocation. It does not matter whether or not we experience the physical desert. It does not matter whether the desert experience takes an ancient or modern form. But it cannot take any random form. We easily popularize the phrase and distort its biblical meaning. For instance, we use the “desert experience” to designate and even justify a dehumanized existence in the city, an addiction to work, a willingness to live without beauty and leisure. The real desert is a distinctive experience whose purity must be preserved.
We don’t have to romanticize the desert. The God of Israel was not a reflection of the desert, he was also present in the cities. But in the cities of the Jewish Testament, people were so driven by lust for power, pleasure, money and honor that they never sought God there. They needed the utter simplicity, the silence and solitude, the emptiness of the desert. In the desert we discover the difference between essentials and nonessentials; the distinction between the vital and the moribund.
The desert is a destruction of mediocrity, compromise worked into a system. Mediocrity becomes impossible in the desert where everything is reduced to the rigid alternatives of life and death. We then rise up out of a sluggish culture, and regain a classical human stature as we respond to reality with authenticity and sensitivity, according to a hierarchy of values in accord with the supreme value of Ultimate Reality.
A striking feature of the desert experience is the physical wilderness. Biblical references to the wilderness and the monumental events that occurred there are not in every instance references to a sandy desert, but always to places that share certain geographical characteristics: mountaintops, seasides, lakesides, hill country, and woods. They are always uncrowded, naturally beautiful, uncluttered, unhurried, solitary and still. We are reborn there, free to be our best selves.
From Jerusalem’s towers or its neighboring hills, you see vast expanses of desert. It is to this day a howling wasteland. People still perish in the deserts of the United States as well as the Middle East. You will not survive in the desert unless you affirm wholeheartedly and quick-wittedly its reality and come to terms with its brute surd facts.