The desert, we know, is an extremely harsh environment – open spaces, dry, barren, extreme hot temperature in the day, cold in the nights, very little rain fall, not a drop of water at many a times, hostile, wild, empty, sandy, a mystery…
Though each desert is different, they are all isolated, lonely and silent. Quite appropriately, the Arabic word ‘sahara’ translates to desert. Why would any sane living human being even want to be out here in the wilderness, away from all the comforts of everyday life?
The story of the desert (or wilderness, as it is more often used) has been associated with many people in the Bible – Abraham and Sarah, the long years of the Exodus with Moses, the flight of Elijah, John the Baptist, many, many others and of course, Jesus.
“Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days...” (Luke 4:1-2, NAB)
Scripture tells us that after being baptized, Jesus prayed and fasted for forty days and nights in the desert; being tempted in the great silence. Jesus went to the desert wilderness to prepare for the mission of His Father.
In the Old Testament, we read that Moses, too, went to the mountain at Sinai, in the desert, and stayed there 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Likewise, Prophet Elijah spent 40 days journeying there. (1 Kings 19:8)
The desert, it seems, has nothing to offer – inviting the abandonment of everything in favor of nothing – surrendering of everything to seek God alone...to meet God in our nothingness...just 'being' our simple naked self - stripped of everything that is of the world.
In the biblical days, we read that the desert, for many, was an experience, a place to runaway to, a place to be tempted, to be tested, to discover, to be found, to search, to survive, to seek solitude, to pray.
The Desert Fathers in the early centuries often sought for silence, simplicity and solitude in the deserts – the nature of the landscape, the open spaces allowing them to contemplate God and put Him in priority above everything else...no attachments, no distractions...
These days, amidst the busy-ness of the contemporary world, the metaphor of the desert can be, for us, a feeling of inner emptiness or void that comes from being cut-off from God’s presence – too many distracting noises from the everyday life. However, this same desert can, if we so choose, be a place of self discovery for us this Lent.
The desert will demand from us, endurance, during the times of struggle, testing, simplicity, self abandonment, quiet prayer, emptiness, reliance on God – putting God first in our life. The desert, according to Pope Benedict XVI is a “test of faith”.
“Yesterday, you understood a little; today, you understand better; tomorrow, you will understand better still: the light of God is growing in you.” – St Augustine of Hippo
As we undertake the fundamental decision to begin this journey through the holy season of Lent, with Ash Wednesday, let us not to be afraid.
Instead let us dare to renew ourselves with the experiences of the desert within us – seeking such isolation as a means of abandoning ourselves completely to God – gaining our courage, deepening our faith and developing the sensitivity to hearing the voice of God again – trusting God with our life again – encountering our God in love again...to cross this desert with Jesus...to be found and embraced by Jesus, our good shepherd.
“From the moment Christ went out into the desert to be tempted, the loneliness, the temptation and the hunger of every man and woman became the loneliness, the temptation and the hunger of Christ”
– Thomas Merton