The Desert

The mention of deserts conjures up vistas of endless shifting sand stretching away for as far as the eye can see; or maybe an uncompromising mountainous region of rock and stone; places with no obvious signs of life; hostile, barren, and endless without respite under blazing sun and cloudless blue sky. The imagery is all about emptiness and inhospitable harshness, yet we know that rare rainfall can surprisingly bring forth sudden carpets of flowers. We might consider the expanse of the desert and the enormity of it, perhaps thinking it is almost like a great canvas waiting to be painted on, or a stage set waiting to become animated. The spaciousness brings about a sense of timelessness, eternity; it is a place of wandering or perhaps a challenging journey. It is a place of potential.

Carmelites often describe the spiritual journey in terms of landscapes.

In our spiritual life we have times when all seems a desert – there seems to be nothing to nourish us and everything is dull, colourless, never ending and without hope. 

In the Bible, different translations use desert, wilderness, uncultivated land or lonely place interchangeably. If one is spiritually in a desert or wilderness, a place devoid of obvious nourishment, God is still right there with you and you are in a place of space, space for God without distractions; a place of encounter. In that great emptiness, alone with God, you are more open to both useful insights and seemingly unhelpful temptations. 

We think about how Jesus, after his Baptism in the river Jordan, was immediately led out into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted. He fasted for forty days and forty nights leaving him very hungry. Jesus triumphed over the Devil and his temptations by countering the words of the tempter with words from Scripture:  Matthew 4:3 “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’.

So we can successfully fight the devil in our own spiritual desert times using scripture, and perhaps fasting, we can learn from God and be strengthened – perhaps even have an epiphany – flowers may bloom. Good can come out of our time of being in our own spiritual desert.

In John 6:31 we read that Jesus told his disciples, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them ‘ Truly, truly I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my father gives you the true bread from heaven’”.

In 1 Kings 19 we read about Elijah the prophet who the Carmelites think of as our inspiration, and how he was very afraid after being threatened by Jezebel and “went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.’ And he lay down and slept under a broom tree; and behold an angel touched him and said to him ‘Arise and eat’ and he looked and behold there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.’ (1 Kings 19:4-6).

In his desert – in the depths of fear and isolation, God sent him both spiritual comfort and physical sustenance.

We read about John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1- 3 “ In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”.

A time in the spiritual desert is a time for trusting in God, for fasting, praying and reading Scripture; for straightening our ways and also our “way” – our journey with and in and through God. We trust that the Lord will provide for our needs, be they physical or spiritual. It is a time for asking “What can I do to serve God? How can I be his hands and feet here on earth?” – for as St. Teresa of Ávila wrote, ‘Christ has no bodynow on earth but yours.’ –  and trust that God will show us a little more of who we truly are, in Him, when all else is stripped away. In this first week of Lent, equipped with these tools, let us enter bravely into the desert….

Rosie Bradshaw, National Moderator, TOC

Weekly Reflections

Steps on the Journey - weekly Reflections from Carmel
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