Behind the forty-day preparation for Easter known as Lent (the word actually means “springtime”) is the image of the desert. The Bible describes the forty-year desert sojourn of the Chosen People as preparation for entrance into the Promised Land. Elijah the prophet and later John the Baptist were both desert dwellers. And the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus was driven by the Spirit “into the desert. He was in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

I don’t have much experience with deserts, but in the few days I once spent in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona the things that surprised me most were the immensity and darkness of the night sky and how much noise there was at night. The hot sand and rocks creaked as they cooled down, coyotes howled, and other animals (javelinas?) could be heard crashing through the palo verdes. The desert day, by contrast, was fiercely bright. A white light surrounded the cactus and rocks.

I think I can understand how mystics have found sustenance in the desert. Here the senses are heightened in a new way. One sees differently—sees more. One hears sounds that are drowned out by the noise of cities. And so over the centuries Christian ascetics have built dwellings for themselves in the desert (variously called hermitages, anchor holds, retreats). St. Bonaventure begins his Itinerarium by describing himself as “the poor man in the desert.” Centuries later, Thomas Merton would conclude Seven Storey Mountain by borrowing that phrase to describe himself.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to make a trip to the desert. (My suspicions are aroused by advertisements for recycled dude ranches offering a “contemplative experience.”) But I do think that desert experience can help us to understand something important about Lent. The Bible tells us two things about the desert: that it is dangerous (Mark’s Gospel says Jesus was surrounded by wild animals) and that it’s a place where we can hear the voice of God. The Gospel of Mark describes the prophetic voice as “crying out in the wilderness.” Of course, the wilderness does not have to be a place; it can also be a time. Lent is the season when we are invited to a more austere way of living, and the purpose of this austerity is to make us more alert to the presence of God.

In the desert we wait and we listen. Lent is not a time for talking. We should be obedient to the opening line of the Rule of Benedict: Listen! In the Byzantine liturgy, the deacon cries out before the reading from Scripture: “Wisdom! Let us be attentive!” In our Lenten desert one good form of asceticism might be to do less texting and web surfing, to become less distracted and more attentive to what matters most. In that silence, we find the deepest form of prayer. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the psalmist.

The human heart can also be a desert. In the midst of his own desert experience, a period of spiritual dryness and desolation, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins cries out to God, “send my roots rain.” And in his famous elegy for William Butler Yeats, Auden writes, “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start.” At the center of the desert experience is the vivid sense of waiting to be healed. In the desert of Lent we yearn for the moment when the “Alleluia” will be sung and the long silence pierced by the good news: “Christ is risen!” 

Lent is also a time to remember those who live in a desert not of their choosing, those who have been deserted and forgotten. Slums, shantytowns, and skid rows are all a kind of desert. Satan the Tempter comes to people in these places as he came to Christ. Destitute, unable to imagine an occasion for Alleluias, they sometimes succumb to despair. Lent ought to clear the distractions that keep us from seeing the inhabitants of the real deserts of our day, and it ought to be a time for ascetic practices that do more than deprive us of pleasure. When St. Augustine preached about the traditional ascetic practice of almsgiving, the congregation applauded. He answered the applause with a caution: “My brothers, these plaudits are no more than the leaves of trees; what we are looking for is fruit!”

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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