Joshua Tree National Park (Rawpixel)

Last summer’s wildfire in Joshua Tree National Park was the largest to burn through the eastern Mojave Desert in recorded history—surpassing the 71,000-acre Hackberry complex fire of 2005, and, as The Los Angeles Times put it, “searing through a delicate ecosystem already strained by invasive species and the burning of fossil fuels.” James Cornett, an ecologist specializing in Joshua trees, was quoted in the same story: “I can say with the utmost certainty that the areas that burn—whether it’s Joshua trees or other plants—will never look the same in the next couple of generations, if not longer.”  I mourned this fire deeply, and I think about it often, especially now as Lent begins.   

Lenten scriptural readings conjure images of deserts as dry, desolate, and inhospitable landscapes with extremes of hot and cold. Homilists use the desert to remind us of the importance of solitude, to invite us into apophatic prayer, to think of temptation as something that presents itself under dire need, and to seek the quiet spaces to be one with the divine. Deserts, however, can be rich ecosystems with a beating heart, home to a wide range of plant and animal species able to thrive in those conditions. Joshua Tree National Park, which spans the Mojave and Colorado deserts, is a great example: nearly 800 plant species can be found across its expanse. Half of these are the wildflowers that bloom every spring, bringing about 2.8 million visitors each year.

The Lenten practice of entering the desert and reflecting on Jesus’ own time in the desert is about entering the depths of our own being. So I move inward into my interior desert. In this movement I wonder what lessons the desert plants can teach me about how to preserve my spiritual well-being when contemporary life seems characterized by existential dread, with every scroll through social media and every click on daily news sites bringing worrisome reports from around the world.

The Lenten practice of entering the desert and reflecting on Jesus’ own time in the desert is about entering the depths of our own being. So I move inward into my interior desert.

Almost all succulents have shallow-root system or a combination of deep and shallow roots in order to access the water and nutrients that quickly evaporate on the surface. The twelve- to eighteen- foot roots of the famous Joshua trees have been shown to grow closer to the surface due to drought conditions. I have found that like the water that occasionally  flows along the desert floor, joy-filled moments are quickly dried up by thoughts of the realities of our time: the climate crisis, national polarization, the scandalous death toll in Gaza. These are just a few examples of our daily troubles, but I’ve come to realize that, like the desert plants, I’ve begun to grow shallow roots that are able to absorb what is good the moment it’s made available. Our spiritual lives yearn for the ability to be still in the present moment so as not to miss each life-giving opportunity.

In my last visit to Joshua Tree, about a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, I walked out after sundown and was moved by the stillness of this desert. It asked me to be still with it. I stood with the Joshua trees, and soon realized  that the silence made any movement dramatic and therefore easier to notice. In the depth of our beings, as we sit with our true selves, we find God with us, in us, and around us. We are able to notice and discern the life-giving water, and we experience spiritual consolation.

This year’s liturgical cycle gospel reading, Mk 1:12-15, is brief. We only learn that Jesus was driven into the desert by the Spirit, that he remained in the desert for forty days, that he was tempted by Satan throughout this time, that he was among the wild beasts and was ministered to by angels. We are abruptly taken to Galilee, where Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God. Throughout Lent the liturgy will invite us to reflect on Jesus’ ministry leading up to his passion. So what happened in the desert? Throughout the Lenten season we learn of his ministry. He is fully present to those he meets, he discerns hypocrisy from righteousness, he laughs and cries, he is hope incarnate, persistent even in the face of absolute crisis. Jesus has both deep and shallow roots ready for all circumstances and access to the stillness of the desert amid the chaos of the world he was born into. Jesus might have left the desert, but the desert did not leave him. Denial of the self is a traditional Christian spiritual practice that has its benefits, but this Lent I feel moved to a radical acceptance of the self, to practice real presence, to live in the moment with shallow roots like the succulents, ready to feel and to receive. I feel moved to a radical stillness inspired by the wisdom of the stretched and twisted arms of the old Joshua trees.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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