In the desert

Lent 1 2009 desert

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

In the name of God whose spirit calls us out of the world in order that we might more fully enter into it. Amen.

The desert can be a beautiful and terrifying place. In Australia, we know only too well the dangers that face the ill-prepared and unwary. Vast expanses emphasise isolation. Aridity and a lack of life highlight vulnerability. Absence of sound exaggerates the clamour of the voices within.

What then makes the desert or the wilderness so compelling for spiritual ascetics like John the Baptist and the Desert Fathers? What drew Jesus into the emptiness of the wilderness for 40 days? The solitude and emptiness of the desert attract those who want to withdraw from the noise and superficiality of the world to discover what is real. The barrenness of the wilderness provides a challenge for those who want to test their ability to survive without the supports offered by social structures. The loneliness of the desert offers an escape from the demands of social interaction. The lack of entertainment forces one to depend on one’s own resources. The absence of busyness allows space for reflection. The deep silence allows the voice of God to be clearly heard.

In the desert, without normal forms of identifiers, a person comes to know who they really are. In the desert with no one to affirm them, nothing external to give structure and meaning, a person is confronted with the bare facts of their existence. In the silence of the desert one is force to listen to the constant chatter of one’s own mind. In the isolation of the desert one is forced to come to terms with one’s own company. In the scarcity of the desert one identifies the demands one body makes for sustenance. In the inactivity of the desert one has to deal with boredom and lack of direction. In the absence of distraction one comes face to face with all of oneself – the dark, injured and furtive as well as the strong and respectable. In the vastness of the desert one recognises the how insignificant, how finite and how limited one is compared to the infinite majesty and power of God. Exposed to the dangers of the desert one has no choice but to be completely dependent on God.

In today’s world, in which time is at a premium, in which activity is valued over inactivity, in which social interaction takes precedence over solitude and in which even our leisure time is eaten up by demands to attain a certain level of fitness it takes a certain amount of discipline to allow oneself space to recharge and reflect. Few of us have the time, courage, resources or inclination to spend 40 days alone in the wilderness. Moreover, we tend to measure ourselves by what we do and not by what we don’t do. To do nothing is to risk being seen as lazy, or worse still as having nothing of value to offer.

As a result we continue to fill up our time to prove that our lives are worthwhile, to earn enough money to have the things we think we need, to demonstrate that we are getting the most out of life, and we pay the price in stress related diseases, broken relationships, drug dependence or depression. We become isolated from the person we really are, separated from the longing for God which is at the depth of our being.

It is important therefore, to fashion for ourselves an experience of the desert – to set aside space, to seek out the silence and solitude in which we can come to know ourselves and hear the voice of God. This takes not only discipline but courage because solitude is a place of conversion and transformation. In fact, the initial experience of silence and solitude can be truly terrifying. With nothing and no one to distract us from ourselves we come face-to-face with our deepest fears and anxieties, our longings and desires, our ambitions and strivings. Without external factors to affirm us, we may lose confidence in our own worth. With nothing to structure our time, the hours may drag on as if the day would never end. Stripped of everything that is familiar we may feel empty and alone. In the silence, the endless chatter of our inner mind may drive us crazy.

Sooner or later, we come to terms with the emptiness and even to appreciate the gifts it gives us. We become more attuned to ourselves, more aware of the world around us. We learn to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others. We learn to let go of those things we rely on to give us our identity and become more settled with the person we are. We give ourselves the freedom to re-think ourselves, to consider what is really important and to determine where and how we want to direct our energies. We give up our striving and allow ourselves to be at peace. When we have stopped trying to be who we think we should be we can become who we really are – accepting the bad with the good, the damaged with the whole. When the voices inside ourselves are finally silenced, when we are comfortable with who we are, we will finally be able to hear and respond to the voice of God.

This time of Lent is a gift, not a burden. It provides an opportunity for time out. The season of Lent gives us a pretext to reflect on our lives as they are and to ask ourselves if this is how we really want them to be. It presents us with an excuse to take stock, to test our mettle and to reflect on who we are and how that affects our relationship with God. We don’t have to take ourselves off to the desert, or go on a Retreat (though either would prove useful). Through prayer and reflection, through the discipline of fasting or simply by giving entering a desert of our own making we are asked to stop for a time to re-evaluate our lives and to rekindle our relationship with God.

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