Come Lent, Catholics like to plan their own desert experience. But in this year of COVID, where we are already living in our own desert, it’s an option that has been taken out of our hands. Photo illustration by Erik Canaria. Photo of Egypt’s Western Desert from CNS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters

Into the Lenten desert

  • February 13, 2021

Forty days in the desert — that’s our usual starting point for Lent. But we would prefer to choose our desert, and most years we do. We decide what we will give up for Lent. We choose spiritual reading, take on volunteering and charitable acts, memorize a new prayer, set aside time for meditation. Diligent Catholics like to plan our desert experience.

Thanks to COVID, we’re already in the desert. We’ve been here all year. Whatever we were planning is no longer up for discussion. We’ve given up time with friends and family and the ordinary pleasures of coffee shops, pubs, concerts and movies. Illness and death have given us plenty of reason to pray for others and ample opportunity to contemplate our mortality. 

“Remember that you are dust and that to dust you shall return.” Well, how can we forget?

We find ourselves on a seemingly endless trek through an unchosen desert.

“When I look at my own life, I would say most of my desert experiences have not been chosen. They’ve been foisted upon me,” said Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Robert Kasun. “In my experience, the desert experiences that are forced upon me have tended to be more productive than the average Lent, when I have the opportunity to choose.”

Jesus, the bishop points out, didn’t choose His desert experience. In the Gospel of Mark, “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.” In Matthew, He was “led by the Spirit.” In Luke, Jesus is described as “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” None of this suggests that it was His choice.

The trouble with exercising choice on our Lenten shopping trip through the virtual store of devotions, disciplines, fasts, feasts and abstinences is that it’s all about us, when Lent is supposed to be about God the Spirit. Our choices tend to reinforce our existing self-image when what we need is to repent, convert, change.

“It’s an opportunity for some deeper communion with the Lord, or a deeper encounter with the Lord,” said Kasun. “But also, it is an opportunity for me to take a look at my own life and ask myself, ‘Where do I need to repent? The kingdom of God is coming, repent and believe. What do I need to change? What needs conversion?’ ”

Looking at the desert in the Old Testament, we see two kinds of desert experiences, or maybe two interpretations of Israel’s time in the desert. 

“There is the image of the desert as the consequence of Israel’s infidelity and lack of trust in God,” said Jesuit Fr. Gilles Mongeau in an email. “Israel has chosen disobedience and God allows them to feel the consequences of this choice.”

This Exodus story isn’t a matter of an angry God exacting revenge, Mongeau said. Rather it’s “spiritual pedagogy.”

But the prophets have another take on our time in the desert. Out in the desert, we find it is “a time of particular intimacy with God, as a time when God took special care of the people.”

Isaiah recalls God saying:

“ I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, 
    the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

“The return to the desert is seen as a renewal of relationship, where the stripping away of all that is unnecessary refreshes and deepens the relationship between God and His people — like being on retreat,” Mongeau said.

Whether God takes His people on a honeymoon in the desert or instructs them in their true calling, away from the fleshpots of Egypt, the desert is where we discover a new intimacy with God.

“I think the unchosen desert has that kind of effect,” Mongeau said. “And so, doing things to confront vulnerability or deepen one’s encounter with God opens us up to letting God transform the unchosen desert into a time of retreat, like Israel’s second experience. This is not something we can do for ourselves. But we can dispose ourselves to be open to discovering God at work in the unchosen desert by adding some practices rather than by subtracting something.”

If we are able to accept our reality as it is, then we are ready to add to our understanding of God, said Kasun.

“I think Catholics readily understand that kind of language, that we can add something in Lent,” he said. “Maybe it’s a sacrifice for us, but probably not. Maybe the Lord is saying something to us in our adding. Maybe we’re reflecting His love of the world, giving witness to the Gospel.”

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