Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Spirituality: Desert time!
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the March 20, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Please notice the correct spelling: one “s.” The exclamation “Dessert time!” would find many of us smacking our lips! But who in their right mind would come running at the call “Desert time!”?
Yet the desert is precisely the place where the Church calls us these days. This week we find ourselves nearly a third of the way though the season of Lent. As we have learned from childhood, these 40 days replicate the time which the Gospels portray Jesus spending in the desert before beginning his public ministry.
In our culturally-induced time consciousness we may tend to relate to these Lenten days of prayer and penance as a mere segment of time measured on our calendars - one month plus 10 days. The number of days of Lent (40), however, has its symbolic importance, but this segment of time is more than a count of days. The imagery of the number 40 has powerful symbolic reference in our Judeo-Christian spirituality tradition.
We are familiar, of course, with the picture of Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert. (As we are reminded every first Sunday of Lent). Perhaps its mention even may direct our memories to another Scriptural scene: the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. But do we also think of the 40 days and nights of storm and tempest before Noah’s ark struck land with all those animals? And what about the 40 nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai before God gave him the Ten Commandments? Or the 40 days it took the prophet Elija to travel to Mount Horeb, where he found God's presence in the whispering wind?
All of these days or years, measured in segments of 40, do not calculate time in terms of calendar boxes and pages. They speak of significant times of searching and testing. It’s interesting that each experience is characterized by a sense of God’s absence. Those who endure such experiences indeed find themselves on a journey into the mystery of God which leads them they know-not-where.
Lent may extend 40 days on the liturgical calendar of the Church, but its importance is far greater than the measure of time. Lent is not the great countdown before Easter. It has value in itself. Lent – like all the Scriptural descriptions, whether 40 days or 40 years – finds its fruitfulness in being a desert experience.
Contrary to the positive impression evoked by television’s Discovery Channel, the desert is not a place of hidden beauty, sprinting bugs and stealthy predators. In Scriptural imagery the desert experience is fraught with emptiness, danger, lifelessness and even threat to life itself. The question is not what there is to see in the desert. (The Discovery Channel presentations almost invite the viewer to set up home there!) In Scripture, spending time in the desert is not a happy occasion. It is a matter of life and, quite possibly, death. Survival is at stake.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness calls us to embrace our own experience of the desert as a shared experience. His time of temptation is not so much one of feeling the enticing lure of sin. His desert experience, rather, is more a time of testing. His fight is not against selfishness and sin but against running from himself and his responsibility in life. During his 40-day experience Jesus had to struggle with his very identity, the focus of his heart and the commitment of his life.
Is this not the greatest of our temptations? It’s not that we don’t know the tug toward sin. We do. Yet the greatest test for any one of us is that of self-discovery and personal responsibility. To mature as God’s sons and daughters we must face two basic questions: Who am I (truly)? And what must I do to be faithful to who I am?
We don’t have to travel to a real dessert to find ourselves embroiled in this kind of temptation. We are tempted to run from our true selves all the time. More cleverly than any desert beast or creepy insect, we readily camouflage our honesty of heart. The busy-ness of life, peer pressure (whatever our age may be), spiritual laziness – and yes, personal decisions to sin - keep us from the awesome confrontation with our very selves and our purpose in life. It’s always much easier to pretend the questions are not there.
Every day can manifest elements of a Lent’s desert journey. The Lenten season formalizes an aspect of our spiritual journey that we all would prefer to avoid. Presentations on the Discovery Channel notwithstanding, the desert experience of Lent is not one we embrace happily. It’s hard and personally challenging to take Lent seriously – to be in the desert. To be alone with ourselves without distraction is frightening because, left alone, we have to engage in the life-and-death struggle with who we are before God.
Jesus emerged victorious after his time in the desert. He had a clear sense of who he was and what he was to be about. There is wisdom in the fact that the Church begins every season of Lent with the recollection of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. If we do not start there, we run the risk of being very busy about nothing of substance and transformation for 40 long days. We can hide behind ashes, purple decorations and the musical absence of Alleluias. There is no personally effective Lent without a personal experience of the desert.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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