February 2018

Listening to the wisdom of the desert

Lent can be a profound time to go within ourselves to experience our own personal deserts and be still with God, writes Joanna Thyer.

BY Joanna Thyer

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert and so do we during Lent, a special time in the Christian calendar, a time to be called to deeper prayer and preparation, quieter discernment, and reflection. The desert has great significance in all the Abrahamic religions and in most cultures. It has always been a place of transformation and a place of testing of the human spirit. It was in the desert where Jesus spent time discerning his mission and gained clarity of purpose.

While some of us grew up with different ideas about Lent, often seeing it as a time of simply fasting or giving up meat, now it can be seen as a much more profound time to go within ourselves to experience our own personal deserts and be still with God, asking only God’s will for us.

I’ve often found Lent a time where I crave stealing some quiet time with God, but find it increasingly hard to do so. I invariably find myself, like an addict, hooked into the distractions around me, both pleasurable and difficult, such as films, mindless gossip, work worries and tasks, and opinionated political discourse which more often than not, just serves to agitate, irritate and distract me from any peaceful space at all. Yet wisdom is often found in the quiet, peaceful, emptiness of the desert, both metaphorical and literal. One of my favourite passages in the Bible is that of Elijah hearing God in the wind (1 Kings 19:11-13).

There is much to take to God in these uncertain times in which we are living. During this sacred time of the year we can ask ourselves, how does our own desert, be it spiritual or emotional, or very real in some other way, speak to us? How do we find God amidst the darkness and the unknowing? Finding solace in the cloud of unknowing can often be the challenge of Lent. God is not always where we think God is.

The invitation as we enter into Lent is to be able to find more quiet time with God, to turn away from the distractions, despite the busyness, the chaotic surroundings in which we often find ourselves. Lent, with its call to practise giving alms, fasting and prayer, can also be a time of paring back – a time of rekindling a sense of wonder with God, a time of facing the realities of our world, the good and the bad, and finding, like Jesus, our own mission and path of peace, amidst the desert of our emotional and spiritual lives. Where is God leading us? What is God’s will for us?

For me, the Lenten experience encapsulates life, imitating the landmarks of the liturgical calendar – such as waiting for the rebirth of Easter. I see the five weeks of Lent as embodying the following process, which I have incorporated into my Lenten booklet Listening to the Wisdom of the Desert.

During the first week of Lent Jesus is driven into the desert for 40 days. This can be about finding a space to call our own, or simply making quiet time to meditate or pray, even if it’s just 10 or 20 minutes a day.

The second week can be about “unsealing the heart’s vision” in the desert, becoming more spiritually aware and opening up more to God. Distractions such as too much media, TV, social media and so on, can cause us to drift away from addressing the important things, like our relationships, the well-being of vulnerable human beings in the world, and the planet.

The third week of Lent is about going deeper into the desert – the decision to let go of what disturbs us, things such as pain, fear, anxiety, and fear of the future. How to do this may present challenges, but a willingness is a start.

The fourth week of Lent I see as being re-created in the desert. This is about allowing God to refashion us in ways we might not imagine. Pope Francis expresses it well:

“Today too, the Spirit continues to sow in us a desire for the Kingdom, thanks to all those who, drawing inspiration from the Good News amid the dramatic events of our time, shine like beacons in the darkness of this world, shedding light along the way and opening ever new paths of confidence and hope.”

This is where individuals can be, in their own small way, “the change they want to see in the world”, as Ghandi said.

Finally, in the fifth week of Lent, we continue to live in the mystery revealed by the desert, despite a world around us that we often have no control over. So staying present to what is, is important – staying open to love, to the different places God might lead us, the things we might be called to do, if we practise discernment and openness. When the famous architect Gaudi designed the magnificent cathedral Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, he did so knowing “My client [God] is not in a hurry”.

Then we experience the ‘homecoming’ of Palm Sunday which leads us into the new light of Easter. Our ‘Jerusalem’ is our spiritual home, whatever that means for us.

The desert experience during Lent helps us to let go of ‘stuff’. What do we need to let go of? God’s wisdom is revealed in simple things; it is only our ego that gets in the way. This is the great truth of many religious and mystical traditions.

‘Letting go’ could involve taking stock of ways of thinking or being that no longer serve us, doing an inventory of what we should dispense with in our lives, just as we do with getting rid of old rubbish, clothes, furniture and things that no longer work for us. This experience can embody the spiritual symbolism of the desert to purge us of what we no longer need.

As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si, we can make a new start:

“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

So the challenge of Lent is to journey with Jesus into the unknown, to be present to the mystery that God reveals in the desert of our own lives. Through our actions, we can stand against the “globalisation of indifference” that is so prevalent throughout the world and allow the creative spiritual power of the desert to demonstrate, “We are God’s work of art” (Ephesians 2:9).

Joanna Thyer

Joanna Thyer is the author of the 2018 Lenten booklet, "Listening to the Wisdom of the Desert" (Garratt Publishing, 2017) and also "12 Steps to Spiritual Freedom" (Loyola Press, 2014). Both books are available from Garratt Publishing and major book stores. Joanna is also a university multi-faith chaplaincy coordinator and a coordinator of a community program for people living with HIV-AIDS.

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