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 Sixth Week of Lent:
The Desert Today
by William McNamara
It wasn’t long before the physical desert became inaccessible. The Church instituted Lent so that everyone can experience the desert. A soft diluted Lent will not do. Lent must be characterized by hardy asceticism: an athletic slimming down for battle, a simplified life, a holy poverty, a clearer vision, a long loving look at the real, an emptiness, all a preparation for the fullness of God. The retreat, too, is meant to provide the wilderness experience.
The U.S. Government officially defined wilderness as “a minimum of not less than 5,000 contiguous acres of roadless area.” But infinitely more is involved. The wilderness invokes a nostalgia for a lost America and the pilgrim Church. The wilderness means something lost and something still present, remote and forbidding, and at the same time intimate. It has worked its way into our blood and nerves; it is frightening, but still draws us into its tantalizing haunts and unbearable heat; it tones up our nerves and brings to life again those emotions that have not yet been numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the scramble for profit and prestige.
The desert stretches beyond us without limit, stimulating and exciting. I am not inclined to sleep or even to relax. All my senses are sharpened and heightened for a fuller life, for more engaging action, with no other purpose than the goodness of the action itself, because the action is pure contemplation. The early morning, evening, and the night as bright as day, are favorite desert times. But noon is the crucial hour. That is when the desert reveals itself nakedly and cruelly.
I remember the first time I stood in the middle of the desert and experienced the utter shock of the real: out there as far as I could see, all that shimmering earth under the scorching sun, a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains our little human world as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. At that moment I recaptured my childhood, rediscovered the world of marvels, and took nothing for granted. I realized in a fresh new way how simply being on earth, able to see, touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious elements, is such a strange and daring adventure.
An unknown author wrote: “Wilderness is no luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself. If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations, he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss.”
We have been warned: “Ours is the age of the bulldozer as much as it is the age of the atomic bomb. For good or ill, we need no longer conform to the contours of the earth. The only wilderness that will be left is what we determine shall remain untouched and that other wilderness in our hearts that only God can touch.” Preserving both these wildernesses demands our best efforts and ought to fire the imagination of governments, social scientists, religious leaders, and every planetary citizen.