THE DESERT OR WILDERNESS“Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert.” (Lk. 4:1)
We have been led, by way of the Liturgical Year, into the “desert” (or “wilderness”) for the liturgical season of Lent ("the Great Fast” in the East), which is derived from the Latin word for 40. As we know, the desert is not only a geographical location, but it is a fearful spiritual journey into unknown territory, a divine encounter with Almighty God, and an unavoidable confrontation with the Enemy.
In salvation history, we see God speaking to Moses in the desert from the burning bush calling Israel out of captivity. We see the children of Israel having to pass through the desert to the Promised Land. We see Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in the desert.
We see the Holy Family fleeing into the desert when Herod sought to kill the Divine Infant King Jesus. St. John the Baptist – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Jn. 1:23; cf. Is. 40:3) – prepares the way for the coming of the kingdom of heaven in the desert. After our Lord’s baptism, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tested by Satan. Christ preaches the Gospel of the New Covenant in the desert, feeds the five thousand in the desert, and he returns to the desert often to pray.
Christian Monasticism takes its definitive shape in the 4th Century when men and women began fleeing to the desert to imitate Christ and the “life of Angels”. And do we not all have our “desert moments” and “wilderness experiences”?
HERMITAGE (POUSTINIA)Biblically speaking, the desert or wilderness is not what we would most likely imagine, such as the Sahara Desert or the Daintree Rainforest. The Hebrew desert or wilderness was a stretch of land used often for the pasturing of sheep and goats, and where wild beasts would dwell. The desert was not totally deprived of vegetation and water or even inhabitants (mainly nomads). The desert even had mountains, caves and streams. Yet, the desert was certainly considered uncultivated, uncivilized, barren and desolate.
The desert or wilderness was known as a place of wandering, hiding, solitude and danger. The desert was also a crucible of trial, temptation, affliction, punishment and purification as a certain rite of passage lasting from 40 days to 40 years.
In the story of Noah, God flooded the earth with 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Twice Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai. For 40 years, Israel wandered in the desert where most of them died. Goliath taunted the Israelites for 40 days before being slain by David. For 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah fasted in his flight through the desert to Mount Horeb where he met God, not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the gentle air as a still small voice. The prophet Jonah gave the people of Ninevah 40 days to repent before God was to destroy their city.
For 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus was tempted in the desert before his public ministry. Our Lord spent 40 days after the Resurrection before his Ascension. And for the past 40 years of the so-called “post-Conciliar era” (post-Vatican II), the Church has been wandering in its own “desert” still trying the find its way to the promise of a new Pentecost.
In short, the desert or wilderness was a jungle fit for wild animals and strangers, and a sort of hermitage or half-way house for the prophet and pilgrim. The desert or wilderness was a battlefield for spiritual warfare, and it was a holy ground for divine encounters. With such an understanding, it is not difficult to see the desert or wilderness as a figure and type of the monastery, the monastic way, and the monk himself. In fact, the Latin rendering of desert in the Vulgate is solitudo, where we get the word solitude. And this is what the word “monk” means – “alone”.
THE NEW MOSES,
It was necessary for Jesus to spend 40 days and nights in the desert simply because it was necessary for the “New Moses” to succeed where the first Moses had failed, so that the Church (the “New Israel”) – foreshadowed by the chosen People of Israel – would not die in the wilderness, but receive the promises of God. “And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but he, for our profit, that we might receive his sanctification.” (Heb. 12:10)
THE NEW ISRAEL
In the liturgical season of Lent, we spiritually accompany Christ in the desert for 40 days and nights to do battle with the Enemy. It is a time of intense prayer, fasting, sacrifice and contemplation of our Baptism (our spiritual rebirth) and the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell). There is also a greater intensity of God’s presence during Lent, and therefore an increase of culpability on our part. There is an increase of grace for our devotions and good works, and likewise an increase of chastisement for our sins and the breaking of our promises.
And so Jesus enters the desert before us, not to take our place, but so that we – in our time in the desert – may be able to resist the Enemy, conquer ourselves, and follow Christ out of the wilderness into his public ministry through our sharing in the Church’s mission and apostolate. “For unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps.” (1 Pt. 2:21)
The Liturgy is the Church’s family album, time-line, map and compass so that we may recall where our forefathers had succeeded or failed – seeing ourselves in their story – learning from salvation history so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past, discerning all things in the light of Tradition (Orthodoxy) so as to stay on the narrow path that leads to life.
OUR GOD-GIVEN TRANSITUS
This is why Jesus also instituted the sacraments of the Church: to give us the ordinary means by which we may be sustained and perfected through our journey, reach our chosen destination, and attain salvation. And though God is bound to the sacraments, he is not bound by them. Thus God will meet us wherever we are to save us, if only we are willing to turn from sin and cooperate with his grace.
In a certain sense, monastics (and Christians who imitate their way of life) never leave the desert or wilderness, as they have committed themselves in singular devotion to God, to a life of spiritual warfare, vigilance, and martyrdom – death to self and life in Christ. Thus monasticism serves as a microcosm of salvation history, the Pilgrim Church and the Christian life through which we can share in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of our Abbot, Lord and Savior – Jesus Christ.
The monastic way is simply a rule of life that ensures that the Christian will keep this truth on the forefront of his conscience as the primary subject of his meditation (the Liturgy), that he will keep the means of sanctification (the Sacraments) always within reach, and that he will make this implicit spiritual reality (the “life of monks”) as literal as one vocation, circumstance and grace will allow, so that he may properly order and direct his steps – going from Gospel to life, and life to the Gospel.
Regardless if we are called to the monastic or secular way, if we bear the name Christian, we must not only liturgically accompany Christ in the desert, we must truly learn from him, imitate him, and share in his temptation in the desert and martyrdom on the Cross, lest we – like the children of Israel – be overthrown by the Enemy and perish by our own sinfulness.
We must never forget that our entire life on earth is a desert and wilderness to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Cf. Phil. 2:12) through the seasons of aridity, temptation, persecution and wandering among the fear of being empty, broken, lost and forgotten. Nevertheless, if we are courageous and wholehearted enough to persevere – by grace and mercy through faith and patience – the desert or wilderness will prove to be our God-given “transitus” (Passover, Pascha, i.e., Easter) from the captivity of sin and death to the promised land of heaven and eternal life.
“A voice is calling, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness. Make straight in the desert the path for our God.’” (Is. 40:3)
17 February 2013 *
First Sunday of the Great Fast (Sunday of Orthodoxy)
Kevin Francis Bernadette Clay,
MONKROCK founder and fellow Oblate of the Last Martyrdom
T* Originally released 12 March 2008
Photos by Ron Wall, Monastery of Christ in the Desert Monastery (Abiquiu, NM)
Used with permission.