The living desert

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Saturday, 27 February 2010 00:00
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Back when I was a child, I watched a Disney movie called, “The Living Desert.” It was, and still is, a fascinating documentary on various types of mammal, reptile, bird, insect and plant life found in the desert. Fifty years later, in January of this year, I finally had the chance to see life in the desert first hand when I spent several days in the Sonora Desert of southern Arizona.

When most people hear the word “desert,” they think of the Sahara with shifting sands and pyramids. Yet the same word can describe any land that is basically dry and resistant to cultivation. The desert that Jesus entered, the area where He spent 40 days at the beginning of his adult ministry (Luke 4:1-2), was a barren land. But, like the Sonora Desert, it was also full of life.

web mug weberIt is often said that our 40 days of Lent have to be our desert experience. Like the living desert that I discovered in the American southwest, the Lenten desert is also full of life even as it appears desolate and lacking in comfort.

In the Sonora, I witnessed birds of great variation, including roadrunners and various jays. I saw several gila woodpeckers drilling into a large saguaro cactus. One afternoon, I stopped and listened to coyotes. Thankfully it was not the right season to see many snakes, but I did see some small lizards. I saw only one scorpion.

Most of all, however, I noticed plant life. The lone palo verde on the hill became a compass point for me as I hiked. Cacti, in more varieties than I knew, were matched by ocotillo, creosote and ironwood bushes. The teddy bear cholla, looking almost fuzzy — but do not touch — especially got my attention.

In short, the fullness of life in the desert impressed this Ohio boy. Much was strange; almost all of it was new. Yet walking through the desert was as life-yielding as a Sunday stroll in Oak Openings or Mohican parks in our diocese.

Spending time in a Lenten desert must also be about life. It is a journey that gives life to the community even as it challenges and causes people to search and discover new examples of life.

The great paradox is that life can be most appreciated when it is less evident. On first glance, a desert experience seems to mean going without or struggling with absence of the essentials of life like water and nutrition. When these are found, however, they are more appreciated.

In Lent we deliberately separate ourselves from plentiful food, extravagant entertainment and personal luxuries. Fish fries may be popular during Lent as people avoid meat, but they rarely define self-denial!

When real fasting or active efforts at self-denial are involved, there may be an experience of entering the wilderness. But precisely because of these sacrifices, the human body can be more disposed to the refreshing presence of God. The same is true for the person who sets aside time for reflective prayer. Like a walk in the desert, the openness of the setting provides space to listen to God.

Lent is not simply about the quantity of prayer, sacrifices and almsgiving that someone engages in. Those practices mentioned in the Ash Wednesday liturgy are not ends in themselves but opportunities for serious Lenten journeyers to step away from daily activities or business as usual.

As Jesus went into the desert to pray, he removed Himself from His neighbors and family as well as His work and familiar neighborhood. He gave Himself time in a hostile environment to commune with the Father and to embrace His adult ministry that was about to begin. His desert experience probably gave Him strength to endure many trials in the days that lay ahead.

Lent provides us with a desert experience, even when we are many miles from any actual desert. By moving away from the comfortable we enter a world where what seems to be desolate will yield much life for our souls.

Father Weber is pastor of Perrysburg Blessed John XXIII.
Last Updated on Monday, 09 August 2010 13:54