On the Mystical Desert
(Deut.26:4-10; Rom.10:8-13; Lk.4:1-13)
Sometimes it helps to know where a word comes from. The word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘springtime’. And in Latin, ‘Lente’ means ‘slowly’. So Lent really is an invitation to us, to slow down and prepare ourselves for the new growth of spring.
Before any spring, of course, there must be some kind of winter, so the Bible often talks about the desert as a place of emptiness and silence where people go to be shaped and purified.
In Exodus, before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they wander in the desert for forty years. Jesus does something very similar in today’s Gospel. Before he begins his ministry, the Spirit leads him into the Sinai Desert for forty days to pray, fast and reflect. There he’s tormented by demons, but ultimately his relationship with his Father is strengthened and he finds himself ready for his great mission.
Early on in the Church, good men and women like St Anthony of Egypt and St Paula actively sought purification, and literally went into a desert for a while.
Today, the desert is more likely to be a mystical place in the heart than a physical location. But it’s still an important place to spend some time if you want to refresh your heart and mind and prepare yourself for a major change in your life.
The Canadian writer Fr Ron Rolheiser says that before we can be filled by God we must first be emptied, and this is what the desert does for us. The loneliness might seem a bit threatening, but if you have the courage to stay there, things will happen to you. Slowly and silently, with the help of God, you’ll be transformed from the inside out.
This is what Lent is meant to be for us. For forty days we’re encouraged to face the chaos inside us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face – our selfishness, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our greed, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our unhealthy desires, our struggle with prayer, our faith doubts and our moral mistakes.
In Lent we’re invited to look at ourselves honestly, to recognise our weaknesses, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves up to the fresh air of Jesus Christ.
Our secular society teaches us to avoid all that. It thinks it’s better to be distracted and entertained than to face our real selves. And so we too often ignore the mess that festers below the surface of our lives.
If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.
We do this in so many ways. We’re addicted to work. We’re glued to our electronic devices. We turn on the TV or Game Station. We listen to the radio. We reach for a newspaper or magazine. We see a movie. We eat. And some of us talk incessantly.
We seem to do everything we can to avoid silence and the truth of our real selves.
The German Dominican and theologian Meister Eckhart once wrote that nothing resembles the language of God so much as silence. If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.
So, this is our challenge this Lent. Let’s just stop for a while. Let’s go quietly into the mystical desert and be silent for a while. Let’s fast as the Church encourages us to, but let’s pray and reflect as well, and be charitable towards our neighbour.
Fr Ron Rolheiser says that in every culture there are ancient stories which teach us that it’s sometimes important to sit in the ashes. One example is the story of Cinderella. The name itself literally means the little girl (puella in Latin) who sits in the ashes (cinders).
The moral of the story is simple: before you get to be beautiful, before you can go to the great feast, you must first fast and spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, dirty, tending to duty and waiting.
For us, Lent is that season. It’s our time to sit quietly in the ashes, waiting for the extraordinary joy of Easter. We began this process a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday, when our foreheads were crossed with ashes.
So, this Lent, let’s make time to sit humbly in these ashes. And while we’re there, let’s fast and pray and be charitable towards others, until it’s time for us to rise up in joyful celebration with Jesus at Easter.
For that’s when new life begins.