Living in the desert

With Lent as a compass

During the period of Lent, lasting from Ash Wednesday up until the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil), the Church’s tradition invites us to pay more attention to three aspects of the Christian life: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We can look at these three suggestions as points on a compass, a guide to passing through the desert of life. What follows is simply a short reflection of mine that comes on the heels of a trip with some students to the desert and the oasis of Siwa in Egypt just before Lent.

Reading Scripture, it has always appeared to me that the desert is synonymous with dryness, solitude, or death. Most of us have seen the desert on television or on film. It is only travelling there, however, that one appreciates just how empty the desert is. No sounds, no smells, just mountains of sand hundreds of feet high as far as the eye can see. Every so often, the weathered summits of long-forgotten hills peak through the tops of the dunes. Even a slight breeze lifts up the sand, blowing it into your hair, your eyes, your clothes. You can taste the sand between your teeth.

Nothing is readily available in the desert. There’s no water and no food, except that which you can carry with you, until you reach an oasis. There’s no shade, no protection from the elements, except the clothes you have on. Still, despite the tough environment, the desert presents a stark, challenging beauty. No wonder the desert has been used as a metaphor to speak about the journey of our lives. Life can be like the desert: stark, challenging, deadly even, yet wonderful so long as you have the right tools. A compass to bring along.

Scripture tells us of the people who “have wandered in the desert wastelands” (Ps. 107, 4). The word “people” here is important. The only way out of a desert is in the company of others you trust. It is a community, not an individual, which crosses the desert, relying on the generosity of each member. We are not self-sufficient crossing the desert of life, as modernity would have us believe. In fact, going it alone, not recognising our need for others and for God – fundamentally, what we mean by sin – we can only remain “hungry and thirsty” and our “lives [will ebb] away” (Ps. 107, 5). Going it alone, in the desert, means death. In life, just like in the desert, we need others. And they need us. We are called to share our water and our bread with our brothers and sisters. While always called to concretely love others, Lent reminds us that what we have is ours for the good of the others. Ultimately, almsgiving reminds us and points us towards Him who is truly Good, the “Good Teacher” (Mk 10, 17). He who finally “satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (Ps. 107, 9).

The desert is a place where hope can easily be lost, where we can see nothing good, no “city where [we] can settle” (Ps. 107, 4). Just like the belly, the spirit must also be fed, fortified with courage and hope. It is in the desert that Jesus quoted Scripture at Satan, saying that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4, 4). As Jesus shows us, we live off of God’s word, God’s promise, God’s truth. It is on God himself whom, in the desert, we ultimately cast our hope, He who is our final reference point, not the things I (admittedly) need to fill my belly. While we are called to control (ration) our passions (our need to be filled) throughout the year, Lent reminds us that things, however necessary they might be (in well reasonable doses) to our journey across the desert, are not ultimate ends in themselves. It is not in things we place our hope, but in the True God who “saved [us] from distress” (Ps. 107, 19). Fasting, then, points us in the right direction, the rationing of the resources we need to cross the desert. It is because we fast that we are also able to freely give.

While in the desert, I couldn’t help but be moved to prayer. Paradoxically, this poor setting, this desolation in which death is a reality for the prepared and the unprepared, is beautiful. The poverty of the setting is at the same time its majesty. The stark – and harsh, even – beauty of the desert points so very readily to the awesome Other, the Beautiful One. Left in awe at the immensity of the desert, the girdle of stars that rises as the sun sets and the night draws near, one cannot but be moved by awe and gratitude.

The desert, like life, presents us with two faces of prayer. We pray in gratitude, we pray in distress: “they cried to the Lord in their trouble” (Ps. 107, 13). Just like the desert, life is beautiful, even if filled with disaster, evil and sin: death. Almsgiving and fasting remind us that we are need of others, others are in need of us, and ultimately we are all in need of God. Since we are not individuals but members of a community, we are immersed in a web of communication. We can communicate both our gratitude as well as our need for help in trouble – our need for water and bread, physical and spiritual.

We communicate, similarly, with God, in gratitude and in distress. Before the terrible beauty of the desert, or the hidden beauty of life, we are not alone. We are not left in desperate isolation, alone, but drawn into a communicated hope, borne of love for us: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind” (Ps. 107, 15). Again, paradoxically, we can see that even our cries in times of distress are transformed to speak eloquently of God’s beauty, for what is there more beautiful than hope in His love, than the beauty of Love in Person and His promise to those in distress, that he will turn “the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs” (Ps. 107, 35)? Prayer is the third element of our compass. Lent, reminding us to pray, reminds us to open ourselves, as a community, to the Lord’s beauty, to the Lord who is Beauty, in the midst of this desert we travel.

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