Monday, February 27, 2012

Whither this desert experience of Lent?

Last Wednesday, we began our 40-day Lenten journey with the universal Church by getting our faces smeared with dirt at Mass.  Some of us may have been dreading it, and some of us actually do look forward to this time of austere living.  But I am sure that there are many who are ambivalent about Lent, seeing it as just another liturgical season that we drift into, and drift out of year after year. 

In yesterday’s Gospel text at Mass, we would have heard how Jesus was driven to the desert to be tempted for 40 days after his baptism in the river Jordan.  Our Lenten journey is just as long, and in a way, we too are to join Jesus in the desert. 

Why the desert?  In the Semitic mind, the desert conjures up all sorts if images.  For the most part, the desert is seen as a foreboding place where danger lurks and where evil is present - hardly a place which one willingly goes into.  Yet we are to willingly do just that – enter the symbolic desert of our lives by acts of penance and fasts, so that we can encounter what we fear most – our true selves, with masks and pretenses removed.

Our lives can easily be filled with distractions of various sorts each day.  From the moment we wake up till the moment we close our eyes at the end of the day, our senses are constantly filled with a barrage of sights, sounds and smells.  As if this is not enough, millions go through the day with their ears plugged with earphones pumping sounds and noises to supplement what seems to already be the cacophony of an audio overload.  It amazes me still, how 'innovative' inventors constantly come up with gadgets that make us more and more busy and multi-tasking, filling up almost every waking hour with sensory overloads, as if we are not already overloaded.

With these self-created distractions, we can easily be misled into thinking that we are in that world where there is perfectly nothing wrong with us, simply because we don’t have any pressing need to face ourselves, and with hardly any need to strip ourselves of our distractions and illusions.

In a desert, especially when one is alone, there is nothing to hear and see but our own heartbeat and our own thoughts.  The desert had always been a place where the Desert Fathers of old would retreat to for the sole purpose of getting in touch with the God within themselves.  It also helped them to face their own demons and to exorcise them through facing them directly with no false pretenses.  To be sure, it is one of the hardest and arduous journeys one can ever make in life, as well as one of the most necessary.

Notice that we are told in the passage that the angels came and ministered to Jesus in the desert, but only after he had been tempted.  When we dare to go deep in our Lenten journey of self-discipline and self re-discovery, we will undoubtedly encounter our dark sides if we are really honest with ourselves.  We may even see sides of ourselves that we don’t recognize or prefer not to admit. 

However, we do not go there alone.  If we are in the right spirit of Lent, we enter to that place within not alone, but with the Spirit of God as our guiding light and strength.  Those of us who are blessed with spouses or good soul friends who really know us and have seen our darkest sides can do a very courageous thing - Ask them to name a few of the dark areas of our lives which we need to encounter this Lent. 

Why is this a courageous thing to do?  Because if we are honest enough, we know that it is our spouses who can name the one or two things which are most hidden from ourselves, areas which we never knew was our Achilles' heel(s).  It’s being vulnerable with a new twist.  I personally know of a couple who asks each other to name their sins for them before they go for a Sacramental confession.  Apparently, it’s always a surprise to find out that such-and-such a sin was something that caused a friction in their relationship, principally because they had easily glossed it over from their own personal point of view - that quadrant in the Johari window that is know to others, but which is also in our own blind spot.

Our willingness to go into our private deserts gives us new ears to hear and new eyes to see – both the world, and ourselves.  Then, when we reach Easter, may we all see a brighter and better world with our senses refreshed and hearts renewed. 


  1. Candid and truthful points as always Padre. I think an important thing to take away from our Lenten experience is that many of the distractions that we remove or put aside during this time need not necessarily be allowed to enter our lives again come Easter. The fact that we have done without them for 40 days will likely go to show that we can do without them for much longer and they were likely not necessary in our lives to begin with, and probably were just a distraction and a worldly allurement separating us from our God.

    Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes: vanity of vanities, and all is vanity. What has a man more of all his labour, that he takes under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth stands for ever. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4)

    Anything that does not lead you to God is a hindrance. Root it out and throw it far from you. (The Way: 189, St. Josemaria)

  2. That one quadrant in the johari window. The one everyone shies away from. The one everyone tend to speak little of. The one that I tell myself can be the most 'useful' for a conversion. Yet the one that stings even when wanting to be open and accepting.

    I guess sometimes it's overwhelming to be shown that there are many more areas in need of a change than the million that I already see in me.. But i realize, lent isn't about becoming perfection. It's about stepping that much close to the Father. And if I can't tackle all 1 million and 1 sins in me, having a conversion of 1 is just as worthy a celebration on Easter.

  3. I am delighted that my two favourite teachers concur on the ‘desert ‘ allegory in last Sunday’s gospel teaching. You said that to ‘’enter the symbolic desert of our that we encounter what we fear most – our true selves......’’ and also ‘’for the sole purpose of getting in touch with the God within themselves...’’ – whilst Fr Laurence Freeman (WCCM ) in his Sunday Lenten Reflection, said –‘’our desert is our meditation.....’’ and that the wild beasts are the forces that reside within us that has to be - ‘’confronted in the solitude and stillness of the desert of our heart......’’ !

    Meditation or the ‘’prayer of quiet’’ / ‘’prayer of the heart’’ also called contemplative prayer is not something exclusive to the East for it was traditionally taught by the first Christian monks, the Desert Fathers, especially John Cassian ( 4th century A.D.) and only recovered by the Benedictine monk John Main ( 1926-1982) to become what we call Christian Meditation today. By the repetitive sounding of a single sacred word – (faithfully and lovingly) – it brings us to silence, stillness and simplicity - to an awareness and awakening to the reality of the indwelling of His Spirit within us. As you have mentioned – it is an encounter with our fears ....and also a letting go and emptying......but as you said ‘’we do not go alone, but with the Spirit of God as our guiding light and strength , ’’ –and this is true for the opening prayer at each meditation prayer session begins with this invocation :-
    Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the Spirit of Your Son,
    Lead us into that mysterious silence where Your love is revealed to all who call....
    Maranatha......come Lord!

    It is simple enough for children to learn it yet it is a ‘’work of attention’’ and it requires discipline to put aside a time and space to go to our ‘’upper room and close the door’’ and leave our baggage outside – at least for 20 to 30 minutes. It is a time to ‘be one with oneself in unity of mind and senses, of soul and body, of person and environment, a unity which gives back its balance to the soul and its well-being to the whole person, through which one finds God in the silence of the senses and the oneness of being.’ So the desert can be the balm that we need in our noisy world and this need not only be a Lenten experience !

    God bless you, Fr