The desert experience
The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him, recounts the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent (Mk.1:12-15).
Lent is the time for the desert experience. We all must create a desert space in our overcrowded lives. Everyone occasionally needs some time for inner rejuvenation. In the interior desert of silence and solitude, we come face to face with the mysterious depth of everything that exists. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily living, we must preserve a core of interior silence where we alone experience God’s presence.
In this desert, the awareness of the divine takes place at the very center of ourselves, behind and beyond everything of which we are conscious. Going into the desert can be a time of conscious, spiritual opening, of making an effort to rise to an entirely new state of awareness of one’s spiritual condition.
In the desert, Jesus encountered beasts and angels. There are also wild beasts and angels in everyone of us. Sometimes, owing to our superficial self-knowledge, we fail to recognize the wild beasts in us and we give in to vainglory, or we fail to recognize the angel in us and give in to self-hatred. In the desert, we come to know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and discern our divine calling.
In this desert, we can get to the root of the problems plaguing the world today, not by structural analysis but by simplicity, since the problems of our time are fundamentally spiritual. These problems cannot be solved by science and technology but only through the discovery of who we are and who God is.
In the silence and recollection of the desert, we come to terms with ourselves as we really are. We are reconciled with the beasts and the angels in our lives and then we begin to experience peace again for the first time.
The God experience
In the journey into the desert in silence and in prayer, in faith and in hope, we make room in our hearts for Christ, and the otherness of God becomes Emmanuel.
The journey into the desert is the return to the heart, finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The journey into the desert is the way that leads us deeper into the mystery of the triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. We journey inwards in order to disappear into God and be lost in the mystery of his love.
The vision quest in the desert is an inward pilgrimage – arduous, magical, fascinating, fulfilling, and at the same time most personal and most universal. It is about becoming, recognizing your original self, making a pilgrimage to your own core, your own reality, your own sense of self. We plunge more deeply into our experience, and the journey into the desert allows us to experience the depth dimension of our inwardness.
The journey into the desert is the calling of every Christian. Christians are by nature pilgrims, wayfarers, sojourners on the way to the heavenly city, always on the go, ever moving forward, always unhappy about where they are because they want to reach where they are not, always trying for the goal, according to St. Augustine of Hippo, with restless hearts.
We forget that we are given enlightenment only in proportion as we give of ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. One who wishes to eliminate doubt, confusion and disorder, one who is afraid to make the journey into the desert cannot risk getting mixed up with Jesus of Nazareth.
If you find God with great ease, wrote Thomas Merton, perhaps it is not God that you have found. You have created a God according to your own image and likeness.
Escape from the real self
Many of us try to escape the journey into the desert. We turn away from the struggle to really find out who we are, even if we know that it is only in the journey into the desert that we will discover our own deepest reality. We chose to travel in the darkness, even as we know that it is only in searching for God that we will find our true self.
We live in a time in which most people believe there is not much inside them, only what others and the mass media have put there. Many of us have been beaten, battered starved, neglected, discounted and disowned. The wound is most deeply felt, but the remedy most deeply resisted.
Our false self is often unwilling to travel to the depths of our innermost being, this false self which is the collection of lies and illusions that spring from our turning away from God in whom alone we can find the truth about ourselves and our ultimate identity.
The journey into the desert is the quest for spiritual identity, the long and arduous task of slowly becoming detached from our false, illusory self – a self that is a little more than the collective evaluation and affirmation of people around us – and the opening ourselves up to receive a new self that is participation in the very life of God. It is to skirt the edge of the abyss that is at once our own nothingness and the fullness of God.
We waste our energies in playing various arbitrary roles and society abets us in this charade through the diversions it offers. This insight prompted Iris Murdoch to write in one of her novels that “human beings are essentially finders of substitutes.” And we become rigid, callous, inhuman and fanatical, condemned for life to be imprisoned in the narrow confines of an ego that seeks to build its own security entirely around itself and in objects that will ultimately fade away.
In the presence of the divine, we are confronted by our inescapable finitude, by the ordained transitoriness and mortal frailty of human existence. God’s silence when we talk to him is really filled with infinite promise, unimaginably more meaningful than any word we can hear. In the desert, we listen to God’s call.
You do not hear God’s reply in the silence of the desert? Karl Rahner explains the silence of God this way – God is listening to us our whole life long, until we have told him everything, until we have spoken our entire selves to him. When we are finished, God will speak his Word to us, the Word of His eternity in which He will express His very self in the depths of our hearts.
And so, we must set aside a place and time to be alone daily with God, spend time in the desert to distance ourselves from the many noises and voices that bombard our lives every day, a time to listen to God’s word, a time to discover who we are before God.