The school that I am currently studying in as well as my accommodation (affectionately known as the Castle) which is just a stone’s throw from each other here in Washington DC, are within crawling distance from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have visited it on several occasions, and try to concelebrate the Sunday morning Mass there when the weekend comes. Entering this Basilica always gives me a sense of going into the heart of Mother Mary, where she places me together with her beloved Son, Jesus.
One interesting nugget of information that I found out about this shrine was that this was the place that Dorothy Day, the devout American Catholic convert and social worker, came to in the 1920s on a day trip out of her native New York City to get some help from the Lord. She was at her lowest, after having given birth to a baby girl, became Catholic, and an unwed mother. The man she was with at the time was a staunch opposer to all forms of religion. Dorothy chose God over this man (a very tough choice, as can be imagined), and found herself at this time very much alone. Apparently, in her biography, she told of how she spilled her very being out to the Lord in that particular shrine, and how she felt that she was in a desert all alone. Did the Lord take her out of the desert right there and then? You’d hope. But no, this was no Hollywood story. She had to hop back on the train to take her back to New York City (it’s about a four hour train ride from here) but it was only when she was back there that she met Peter Maurin who was to be the one who would help to start the Catholic Worker Movement with her in 1933.
What struck me about this story was that Dorothy Day described herself as being in a desert at that point. Desert moments occur in just about everybody’s life. When we are abandoned and lonely, we are in deserts. When we are betrayed and feel forlorn, we are in deserts. When we encounter failure and rejection, we are in deserts. When we get misjudged and abused, we are in deserts. Desert moments come also at the least expected of times. When loved ones get ill and their earthly end looms in the horizon; when we want to do God’s will and it seems the hardest thing to be happy to do; when those we put our faith and trust in, return it with infidelity and a whole basket of hurt feelings. These are desert moments that so many of us can connect with.
The difference between a faith-filled person and one who is faith-less, is the way that they handle their desert moments when they come. The faith-filled person will try to look beyond the pain and the sorrow of the moment, and open up to the Lord, like the way Dorothy Day did in the National Shrine back then when everything was breaking apart. The faithful person will try to not make her pain and her loneliness the heart of the universe, and dare to even ask God what is it that she should be learning from this whole experience. The faith-filled person will try one’s best not to blame and shame others, tempting though it may be. It is a tough decision to make, because it means not telling God what to do when the proverbial chips are down. It is very easy to make God our servant and give him a ‘to-do’ list and perhaps even have a ‘to-be-done-by’ date at the bottom.
People who lack faith will do one or more of the following – blame one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s parents, one’s employers, one’s superiors, one’s unhealed past memories, and perhaps the most common one of all, blame God. After all, he is the best scapegoat since he doesn’t retaliate in any violent way. At least not most of the time.
To be fair, I don't think any of us are totally one way or the other. I know I'm not. The reality is that we waver between these poles. Sometimes we do better at being faith-filled, and sometimes we are at the other end. Just as sometimes the desert can be a very hot place, and sometimes a freezing hell hole.
The desert in the scriptures is a place of great foreboding. In the Near Eastern mind, it is a place where the devil roams and inhabits. That is why Jesus was sent to the desert after his baptism – to encounter evil and to begin that great battle that was to be the story his life, and the greatest story ever told. But we need to also know that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus there. God did not send him there alone and without a comforter. His love for the Father and his Father’s will gave him the strength to go to the desert with a confidence and a trust that he would be alright despite the battles that would be fought there.
When we find ourselves in the desert alone, we need to reclaim our baptismal dignity and remember that firstly, we have never been without the Holy Spirit in our journey in life, and secondly, like Jesus after his third temptation, we too, have our Guardian Angels to ‘light and guard, to rule and guide’.
And of course, though I had made reference to this before, it bears repeating here. In the book of the Apocalypse, to escape the foreboding dragon, Mary was given refuge in a desert. That is not what a desert is for. No one in the right mind would flee to a desert for refuge from danger. Yet, God’s ways are often not ours. It is precisely in the most unlikely of places that we will find the most unexpected of graces.
I do have my bouts of surreal homesickness now and then. I find myself low in spirits when I realize just how far I am from home and family, or when I glance at my watch and realize that everyone in Singapore is fast asleep as I am warming up to a cup of tea in the afternoon in the cold DC weather. This is when I go to the roof of the Castle, and have a very good view of the dome of the National Shrine before getting my nose buried back in the books. Sure, it may not be much of desert experience compared to those of others, but the desert takes all forms when it comes. (That's what I see from the roof of my 'castle'. In the foreground is the back portion of my school)
One doesn’t need to have the Basilica as one’s neighbour to find comfort in desert moments. Rather, what one needs is really the faith to enter the desert with a new resolve, knowing that one is not alone.