Monday, October 6, 2014

What desert experiences can teach us.

There are many places in the bible where the desert is specifically mentioned, and for various reasons.  These arid and seemingly lifeless places are hardly places people would willingly go into, even in this day and age when modes of transportation are plentiful and varied.  Only the very adventurous would make that purposeful trip into the desert, and most of us would much prefer to watch these expeditions from the comfort and safety of our sofas from the opening to closing credits of some documentary filmed by National Geographic or some other nature channel.

But when sacred scripture does mention the desert as a destination or purpose, there is usually something positive that we are being told about the desert experience which doesn’t usually enter our minds, requiring that we almost ‘stand on our heads’ to be able to penetrate what it is trying to impart.  Three specific references come to mind which can help us in our search for wholeness and holiness in our own life journeys. 

The first comes from the Old Testament, and is found in the eleventh chapter of the book of Judges.  It is here that we meet Jephthah, the son of Gilead, who makes a very strange promise to God if he is granted victory over his enemies the Ammonites.  He vowed to offer to the Lord as a burnt offering whoever comes to meet him at the door of his house upon his triumphant return from successful battle.  Well, it turns out that the Lord did indeed give the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands and upon his return, it was his own daughter who met him at the door of his house.  Caught in a quandary, his daughter tells him to fulfill his vow made to the Lord, but asks for time to enter into the desert to bemoan her virginity for two months with her companions.  He gives his beloved daughter his blessing to take this leave, after which she returns to him and allows her father to fulfill his vow made. 

One would ask why the Lord did not stop his sacrifice at the last minute as he did with Abraham on Mount Jireh when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.  There is no answer to this question.  But we are not discussing human sacrifice in the context of the land and practices of the Ancient Near East in this reflection.  That will perhaps be best left for another reflection.  What is of import here is what going into the desert meant for this daughter and what it can mean for us.

To bemoan or bewail her virginity is an act that shows that she knows deep within that there is a part of her that will forever remain unfulfilled, much like a crater that can never be filled in one’s heart.  It is something that we all share as part of the landscape of our lives as human beings.  We all have deep yearnings, unfulfilled dreams and hopes, and it is the human heart that knows that our lives seem to be one desire fulfilled after another, constantly seeking and hankering after modes and means which we hope gives us some semblance of being satisfied and fulfilled.  As Karl Rahner is often quoted so rightly, this reality is shown by the metaphor that “in life, there are no finished symphonies”.  It is when she has done her bemoaning that she is able to return home with a new willingness to allow her father to fulfill his vow. 

The second desert episode that bears mentioning is in the Gospels where Jesus is taken by the Spirit after his baptism in the Jordan and is led into the desert for 40 days.  Metaphorical of a long time, this prolonged sojourn in the wilderness sees Jesus being confronted by three very common temptations that every human being is plagued with in life – that of satisfying hunger (in whatever form), inflating the ego, and the perennial, unending and constant fulfilling of greed or avarice.  Jesus may have battled these in rather dramatic form, but it needs to be acknowledged that we have these same nemeses in our lives, perhaps in more and more hidden forms and disguises.  Jesus overcomes these temptations in the wilderness, before entering into life and ministry.

The third desert episode is a leaf taken from the Book of Apocalypse or Revelation, specifically from 12:6 where the woman who gives birth to a child is taken into the wilderness for safety from the dangers of the dragon’s intention to devour her child.  One would think it extremely strange that the wilderness is seen as a place of protection and refuge that is prepared for her by God!  Yet, we are told that in the wilderness, she is nourished for a long period. 

We flee the wilderness or thoughts of being alone, abandoned and being defenseless very easily, and for good reason.  There is something we are inborn with that is called self-preservation.  Yet, in these three episodes of the bible, the wilderness can be a very necessary place that we purposefully enter into at certain times of our lives.  Some may quickly say that they are natural anti-social beings and become smug thinking that they have no problems about enjoying their own company and love to be left alone most of the time, and mistakenly think that they are already at the apogee of spirituality, with no need of retreats, silent disciplines and meditative prayer.  What is apparent on the outside often doesn’t reveal the truth of what stirs within.  It is when we make that frequent entry to face our fears, confront our unfinished symphonies and identify our naked hungers and false egos that we truly come face to face with what gives us ultimate peace amidst the turmoils that we are constantly facing in our lives. 

It is often only when we boldly face these situations – our insufficiency in all our longings, where we need to bemoan our virginities; where we face courageously the temptations of our lives in their barest forms, and follow that directive pointing towards the wilderness where our ultimate refuge from evil strangely lies, that we can emerge from these apparently lifeless places with more strength and more verve to do what we really should be doing that places us at peace and aligned to bring about the Kingdom of God.


  1. In our geography lessons, we are familiar with deserts as vast and barren wastelands like sand dunes or starkly rugged and empty expanses of scrubland experiencing extremes in temperature and aridity due to lack of precipitation. So, early in my initiation into Bible study, whenever I came upon desert episodes, (like those you mentioned) somehow they filled me with much dread. However, much later, doing Isaiah with Fr Vaz, my eyes alighted upon ............. “ The desert shall rejoice and blossom.............The glory of Lebanon shall be given it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.......” (the poetic names are breath-taking ) and it dawned on me that the desert just like in our climatology lessons...............can be carpeted by ‘instant blooms’ whenever rain falls, at least for that brief spell.

    And so it is, that later on, in my encounter with the prayer of the heart – Christian Meditation - that the desert is seen as a very necessary place to go - ‘in pursuit of the desert fathers and mothers had done in the early 3rd and 4th century.’ It was a place they fled to escape the decadence of Rome and to battle the demons that were said to infest the wilderness .........but they found soon enough that the battleground of combat was within – the soul. The desert thus became a symbol of emptiness (a self-emptying) and the openness to be filled with the spirit or ‘otherness of God.’

    So when I read what you said about Jephthah’s daughter - “she knows deep within that there is a part of her that will forever remain unfulfilled” and Karl Rahner’s – ‘unfinished symphony’ – I am reminded of Rolheiser’s Holy Longing and Restless Heart ............and all of them have this common thread .................................that there is the lingering hollowness of incompleteness, as of a deep echoing sigh of the heart that is awaiting an intimacy, a fulfilment that can only be realized at Journey’s End. The late Fr Henry Nouwen wrote poignantly of this....................

    “Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to that day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”

    God bless you, Fr


  2. Thanks for sharing this blogpost. Having gone through a few desert experiences over the last few years, I conclude that we never, if ever want to have a 'desert' experience. Because it can be painful to know who we really are when we finally look and really see. In today's lifestyle, the world around is incessantly noisy. The noise is attractive. The quiet and stillness of the heart is not. You see people plugged in to their phones everywhere. There is music for every activity. So stillness and quiet are unwelcome friends. So hard for God to get through. The line is always 'engaged'. Hahaha. But when we finally honestly try to see who we are and what we have become, or live more purposefully, we would welcome going into that desert place. (Even if sometimes it is a chore). Because in that stillness we may find ourselves. And God too. I took up yoga 2 years ago and have not looked back. Meditation helps us to be aware of the Divine.