A desert can mean many different things to many different people.
The mention of the word desert can conjure up images of cactus, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and cowboys in the Southwest part of the United States. It can also mean sand dunes and/or camels. Some might even think of the Pyramids of Giza. Others might think of places like Iraq or Afghanistan where many of our loved ones and troops have been sent in recent years.
Of course, most of us have heard of the story of the Israelites and how they wandered in the desert for 40 years before they came upon the Promise Land. The New Testament also tells us that Jesus was tempted in the Wilderness for 40 days at the onset of His earthly ministry. Often I joke that I spent the first years of my own life in the desert before I became Roman Catholic at the age of 40.
Some people might think that life in itself is a desert just short of a type of hell. One can live a life of material abundance and at the same time experience deep interior void. They might feel out-of-place and abandoned. Even a big city full of people can be a very lonely place indeed. Even very holy persons can experience what St. John of the Cross termed “The Dark Night of the Soul” where one does not seem to be able to perceive the presence of God for extended periods of time in spite of having faith and desire to know God more deeply.
Right now we are in the middle of the season of Lent. Lent is known as the time of the spiritual desert.
It is in the dry times that we learn to sharpen our survival skills.
The desert can be a time of trial as seen in the above Biblical examples. It can also be a time of purification. Learning to do without helps one to appreciate things that might be taken for granted. I often think of the impact that The Great Depression had on my Grandfather. As a result, he learned not to waste resources and developed a knack for being able to make just about anything out of whatever material was available. I remember as a little kid seeing what he could fashion out of cloth, tin cans, wood, string – you name it. He could saw, sew, mold, pound, weld, or whatever skill it took.
During Lent it is the custom of the Church for believers to practice fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. This is to sharpen our spirituality while we are in the desert. Often this is seen as what someone is “giving up for Lent.” But in reality it is much more than “giving up” – it is about what we serve to gain in terms of virtue by doing these spiritual exercises.
In fasting we learn to master our appetites and passions so that they do not go into excess. In other words, we learn not to go overboard with the good things of life. Prayer helps us to keep check on our imaginations. Our minds are easily imprinted with images through our experiences in life. Triggers can bring up holy or not so holy thoughts. Basically prayer helps us to create a DVD in our mind of heavenly things. By contemplating and meditating on God, we can replace any impure thoughts. Almsgiving helps us to snuff out any false pride we might have. It keeps check on over-inflated egos. True holy pride is learning and knowing how to do God’s will even if we do it imperfectly. It is about being humble and giving God credit.
Realize that the desert doesn’t last forever.
In psychology, one characteristic of anxiety and panic attack episodes is that they do end. The problem is that the human mind can easily become tricked into believing that the symptoms endure forever. Therefore a person usually tries to flee and hide which adds to becoming even more anxious. In reality, being able to accept anxieties and discomforts for what they are rather than fighting against them is part of the healing process. This is much like confronting the deserts of our own lives.
Whether or not we can see it, almost all deserts have an oasis or have the capability lead us to more fertile ground. Even the English word itself is one letter off from being a great pleasure. With an extra “s” a lifeless “desert” can become a sensational “dessert.” The Israelites were led to the Promise Land. Jesus began His earthly ministry. And we are able to more fully participate in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Life is about waiting, wondering, and wandering most of the time through some sort of desert. Think about it.