Throughout history, the desert has held a strange attraction for certain people. Some, including myself, only regard it with much discomfort and dread, while others are drawn to it for the mystery and great adventure it promises. Such childhood stories are set in the desert as Aladdin in the Arabian Nights and some more recent works such as Dune and the middle school classic Holes. Young Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. tangled with some bad guys in the desert southwest before embarking on a career in archeology. And John Hammond plucked a pair of eminent paleo scientists from a dinosaur dig in the badlands near the fictional Snakewater in Montana in Jurassic Park. When I imagine the desert I see Luke Skywalker’s home in Tatooine on the galaxy’s Outer Rim or the desolate landscape that dooms the commercial mining spaceship USCSS Nostromo when an alien life form takes up residence in its human host.
In sacred scripture Abraham migrated west from Ur of the Chaldeans and his descendants formed a people with roots in the ancient tribal culture of Middle Eastern desert nomads. When Moses fled Egypt after that unfortunate incident of a quarrel that ended in murder, his only escape was into the desert. And it was in the desert that God found him and sent him back to demand Israel’s freedom from Pharaoh king of Egypt. I still wonder what convinced God to send his only begotten son to such an arid part of the world. In today’s gospel Jesus withdraws to the desert for 40 days and nights after being baptized by John in the river Jordan. Although the first line of Luke’s account tells us he was led into the desert so that he would be tempted by the devil, it seems it was only after the gnawing pangs of hunger became a factor having gone without food for so long when the devil decided to make his move.
The desert has attracted hermits and recluses in many cultures for generations in hopes of encountering God in prayer and fasting, atonement and solitude. Some people may have been driven to the desert to flee life’s overwhelming responsibilities. It was their version of falling off the grid. Some people perhaps were genuinely moved in their deep hunger to grasp the eternal truths. So, the desert became a sweet refuge to them from life’s turmoil and vanity and pressure and despair. But while it offered safe harbor from life’s many storms, the desert retained its right to welcome other storms as well, of self-doubt and self-pity and guilt and grief. The lure of the desert is easily the promise of instant relief while it plots in the shadows to devour the soul.
In the desert Jesus was tempted by the devil while he spent alone time with God. He needed to prepare for his life’s mission of preaching repentance and good news, of extending God’s mercy and reconciliation, of feeding the hungry in body and spirit, of healing the broken and raising the dead to new life. Jesus did not disappear into the desert to run away from life’s storms. Rather he was preparing to face those storms head on. The devil certainly did not intend to stop laying traps and temptations in his path after his desert experience. But Jesus took advantage of that time of intense prayer and solitude to commit himself to the Father’s plan to redeem the human family.
The season of Lent offers us a desert experience to help cleanse and clarify our minds and hearts for the part we have yet to play in God’s plan. Although few of us here can probably escape the turmoil and vanity and pressure and despair that swirls about us at the moment, it is helpful to know that we need not run away to the desert to accomplish this. I’m not saying it’s not necessary to take time off on retreat somewhere if and when you can afford it. But just as our presence in a place like a beautiful church can help us focus intensely on the eternal truths, all we really need we already possess within us. We have the access we desire within ourselves to be with God in the desert.
In Ash Wednesday’s gospel we heard Jesus tells us to retire to our inner room to pray in secret. It need not be a physical room where we can close a door to shut out all noise and distraction. Even in a quiet room the mind and heart can continue to swim and struggle in the very noise and distraction we want to leave behind. But once the mind and heart are still, and this requires effort on our part, sometimes tremendous effort, we find that desert refuge to sit with God in prayer and fasting and atonement and solitude. The desert of Lent is not where we run away to escape and hide from our life’s responsibilities and challenges. We go into the desert to face our fears and our demons, to conquer our pride, our lust, our resentment, our greed, and to emerge with a firm resolve to be a better human being, a healthier person, a more Christ-centered Christian eager to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and fulfill our role in God’s plan.
The stillness and solitude of the desert can draw us closer to God. But remember our demons live there too conspiring to bury us in self-doubt and self-pity and guilt and grief. Take care who you spend your time with and who you listen to. And remember you have one job—to emerge from Lent a better human being, a healthier person, a more Christ-centered Christian.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022