By Leon Bent –
This piece of writing is a prayer; its message is simple and direct. Read it with your heart, as well as with your mind, and allow your soul to search its source, God, who calls you to a desert place. There you will journey more deeply into God’s own heart which is your true home.
By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days (Mt.4:1-11). Exodus 24:18 says: “Then Moses entered the cloud (Yahweh’s Presence) as he went up the mountain. And he stayed there for forty days and forty nights.” This peak-experience or crystal-clear awareness was what Abraham Maslow called “ecstatic moment,” “moment of rapture;” for me it is the “Born Again” or “Twice Born” experience of the Transfiguration of our Lord (Matthew 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:16–18). We too can have a face-to-face relationship with Jesus, with the “veil” of separation torn apart. “It is humanity launching, exploding into undreamed divinity” (Thomas Merton). Join in the dancing! Dare Rebirth! Experience the fullness of Christ!
Sundays in Lent are not counted among the forty days, because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter,” and the reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection of our Lord. Like flowers in springtime that give birth to a season, Lent offers us opportunities to flourish in the desert. The arid land is fertilized and irrigated by our silence, simplicity, solitude, humility, fasting, total dependence on God, meditation (heart prayer), contemplation, listening to “the gentle whisper”(1 Kgs.19:12), robust faith and renewal.
Thomas Merton: Patron Saint of Desert Spirituality
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, was one of the most well-known Catholic theologians, mystic and writer. In many ways Thomas Merton is the patron saint of hermits and desert spirituality. I quote him: “The prospect of the wilderness is something that so terrifies most people, they refuse to enter its burning sands and travel among its rocks. They cannot believe that contemplation and sanctity are to be found in desolation, where there is no food, no shelter, and no refreshment for their imagination, intellect and the desires of their nature”. Yes, grace is costly: It cost Jesus his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).
However, Isaiah 35:1 balances Merton: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”
One of the greatest challenges that Christianity faces today is the practical rediscovery of its age-old tradition of prayer, contemplation and mysticism. One of the main attempts to revive this spiritual vibrancy in recent times was begun by the Benedictine monk and priest, John Main. Bede Griffiths, a British-born Benedictine monk and priest who lived in Ashrams in South India and became a noted Yogi, called Main “the most important guide in the Church today”, for his teaching of a simple, clear way of prayer that helps discover the Divine Fire within as children of God.
A Desert is Fruitful
Desert times are productive though they seem barren. Lush fruit is produced in our lives when we walk through it. The deserts of our lives are undoubtedly troubling places of both, temptation and doubt, but they can also be the occasion for deep spiritual renewal. “For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the works of your hands. He knows your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (Deuteronomy 2:7). Truly “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins), especially a desert, why, we too will feel the Spirit’s fresh-explosiveness deep down in our very beings!
In this verse, God shows us who He is by what He does. We see His promises worked out in the lives of His people and know that the same God is working in our lives.
Opening Oneself to God
Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.
Ecclesiastically, the Lent Season is an invitation for all God’s people to open themselves to God, the Saviour, who wants to clean their sins and sanctify them.
“I am going to allure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16). Truly, God works unseen in the secret places of the human heart (Henri Nouwen). In this Lenten desert scenario we must ask Jesus “to set us like seals on the hearts of others,” (Song of Songs 8). In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, (in Deus Caritas Est, 31), we look forward to “a heart which sees,” where love is needed, so that, we can act accordingly.
In the story of one old Desert Father, a young man seeking to lead a deeper spiritual life asked, “What must I do?” The seasoned hermit answered, “Think lightly of no man; think no evil in thy heart; condemn no man and curse no man; then shall God give you rest, and your life shall be without trouble.”
Rich Desert Experiences
During the 40 days of Lent, the Church provides an opportunity for desert experiences. The Scripture Readings of Lent are crucial in providing us with insight into what Jesus asks of us. While we are in the desert in the midst of our commitments, at the work-place, in the market-place, on the street, God arrives in our heart like a majestic, colossal parable. Everything around us speaks of the Most High One. Always! Twenty-four hours out of twenty-four!
The sky, the earth and the sea speak to me of Him. He is like a secret hidden in all things. I feel myself to be in God, like a bird in the air; like a log in the fire; like a baby in its mother’s womb. Everything I see, every noise I hear, every dawn that returns, every encounter I am confronted with, are signs of someone who has gone before me and questions me: GOD!
Conclusion: The Desert in the City
The desert in the city is only possible on these terms: that you see things with a new eye, touch them with a new spirit and love them with a new heart. Teilhard de Chardin would say: “Embrace them with a pure heart.”
Now, this gold nugget! The 40 days of Lent plus 3 momentous Feasts that follow are shrouded in silence. Genuine Mystery is always protected by silence. Yet, I am forever in communion with God’s Mystery. Nothing is as full of ambrosial goodness as Mystery! Hence, there is still something unsaid! So, be a blank page, a “tabula rasa” this Lenten Season, upon which Jesus writes his “Good News” tale!
And, this final flourish: Words of wisdom from Evelyn Underhill, in The Fruits of the Spirit: “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land”. When we believe and live this out in fierce faith, we and our lives are “living prayer.”
Leon Bent is an ex-Seminarian and studied the Liberal Arts and Humanities, and Philosophy, from St. Pius X College, Mumbai. He holds Masters Degree in English Literature and Aesthetics. He has published three Books and have 20 on the anvil. He has two extensively “Researched” Volumes to his name: Hail Full of Grace and Matrimony: The Thousand Faces of Love. He won The Examiner, Silver Pen Award, 2000 for writing on Social Issues, the clincher being a Researched Article on Gypsies in India, published in an issue of the (worldwide circulation) Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, New Delhi.