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The Desert Experience

Meeting God in solitude and silence

It’s not easy for Michigan people to grasp either the reality or the symbolism of the desert. We’re surrounded by the world’s greatest fresh-water lakes, and we say we live in a Water Wonderland. Even in our landlocked Diocese of Lansing there is no spot as much as a hundred miles from Lake Michigan or Huron or Eerie.

So when we read the Old Testament accounts of Israel in the desert, or when the Gospel tells of Jesus spending forty days in the desert before beginning His public ministry, the significance of the desert is probably lost upon us. When spiritual writers or preachers speak of “desert experiences,” we are apt not to know what they mean.

It helps if one has seen a desert. As a tourist in Egypt in 1956, I flew over the edges of the Sahara. The desert is awesome. Its very expanse and monotony is inspiring. The desert is quiet and mostly lifeless, breathtaking in its own way. The desert is also hostile. The winds that create sand dunes appear almost musical can also create sandstorms that are lethal. The desert is waterless, and humans are creatures whose bodies are two-thirds water. To get lost in a desert means almost certain death.

The people of Israel first met Yahweh in the desert, and the story of their desert wandering remains the type of human encounters with God. It was also in the desert that Israel was tested, failed, and later found favor with Yahweh again. Jesus went into the desert and passed forty days there in prayer and fasting alone with His Father. It was at the end of the forty days that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert. He was strengthened by all this, and the Holy Forty Days of Let are modeled after Jesus’s desert experience.

“Nobody has ever accomplished much for God who did not spend time alone with Him in prayer,” is a byword my seminary spiritual director drummed into me fifty years ago. Solitary confinement is torture, but being alone with one’s beloved leads to great things. Silence is essential to an encounter with God, but we Americans are surrounded by noise most of the time. We have to find times and places where we can meet God in silence.

This Lent introduce yourself, or re-introduce yourself, to the desert experience—solitude and silence—for an encounter with God; at home, in Church, or out in the woods; on a retreat, or a day of recollection, or just a quiet period in your day.