Green Shoots in the Desert

Lent is a time to remember we are desert people—called to risk following Jesus into his desert and our own. Deserts come in many guises: geographical and spiritual, searingly hot or witheringly cold, bathed in all-exposing light or swathed in impenetrable darkness. Whatever its character, the desert leaves you with little choice but to attend to the call to go deeper, to journey closer to the core of your being.

Last year I spent part of Lent in the deserts of southern California, and the lessons of the landscape came beating in: the badlands, so barren, unyielding, resistant to any kind of encounter and so much a part of my own heart. But between the rocks were the first glimpses of the wild flowers that would soon make the desert bloom. It reminded me of a chance meeting in the Sinai desert with a Bedouin wanderer who amazed us by taking a dry seed in the palm of his hand, spitting on it and inviting us to watch as it literally burst forth into green growth before our eyes. Lent is also an invitation to let that fresh new growth begin in our hearts.

By contrast, a more recent experience showed me that life, like that little seed, is not just a promise for the future but something we hold in the palm of our hands here and now, if only we could recognize and celebrate it. It happened in a small town in northern Canada. The invitation to visit this community took me completely by surprise, to say nothing of taking me to what felt, in the bleak dark of a winter night, like the middle of nowhere. The snow-filled streets seemed to rise out of the gloom as the aircraft touched down. In hindsight, I think the town was trying to tell me, even then, that it was incubating remarkable things, but at that first moment of my arrival it felt like a dark night and a desert landing.

The town lies at the intersection of the east-west and north-south highways connecting the Pacific coast to the prairies and the East, and the wilderness of the Yukon to the balmier clime of Vancouver. There you can stand at that physical crossroads and allow the world to unfold around you as if you were at the focal point of a Google map. The world that unfolds might seem pretty desolate to the casual observer. But what if you move inward instead, into the soul of this place, into your own soul and see what seeds might be waiting there, to bloom and bear fruit when the time is right?

I did not have to wait long for the opportunity to do just that. I soon discovered in this small town, at the meeting-point of so many possibilities, a vibrant ecumenical group of Christians with all shades of theology but just one passion: to follow where Jesus leads them, out into the world and closer to God and each other. I found myself in two places at once: in a diocese that is bigger than Germany and at the same time in the intimacy of a family home, in conversation with new friends around a coffee table at which Henri Nouwen once celebrated the Eucharist in this same room with these same people.

It was there that I heard about a very particular vision of reconciliation, the Returning to Spirit program. It makes authentic and compassionate space possible where Native American people, damaged by the experience of being forcibly taken from their families to the harsh regimes of some of the mission boarding schools, talk with representatives of the church organizations responsible for doing the harm. Together they can reflect deeply on their experience, meet one another in it and move beyond it. Heal-ing happens at the intersection of two raw experiences of pain, where the truth can be spoken and honestly heard. It is a visionary model for genuine reconciliation that will surely inspire healing in other areas of festering resentment and conflict. And it is all about returning to the true core of our being, where the spirit of God dwells, and honoring that spirit in each other. That same Lenten call re-echoes in our hearts every year at this time.

I cherish both these personal experiences of what at first appeared to be desert space, but where deeper reflection disclosed radical new growth. They are two different examples of the same truth: If you stand still and ask for the grace to put down a deeper root, God will not fail to surprise you with new possibilities. They are two different kinds of desert journey, back to the heart and true spirit of things, acknowledging the badlands and accepting God’s invitation to smell the flowers.

7 years 2 months ago
The very beautiful and insightfu, "Green Shoots in The Desert," by Margaret Silf, starts by saying, "Lent is a time to remember we are a desert people." And she reminds that life's "desert experience" comes "in many guises geographical and spiritual." She concludes saying, accept "God's invitation to smell the flowers."

I must say, my experience of life is, that, one doesn't have to wait for Lent to experience the desert. By itself, life is and has been pretty much a "desert experience" with little geographical time to smell the flowers. By "geographical" I mean trying to bloom geographically where you're planted, which involves the practically forever "wars and rumors of wars" situations of trying to raise a family, meet your expenses, in general trying to make ends meet, while doing a little saving, but which never seems to happen! The sacrificial march of life continues, one step forward, two steps backwards, multiple decades giving insight. Yes through the sweat and toil of the geographical Lent, ever seeking to remain faithful to Christ in that uphill trek, where flowers may pass unnoticed, but they are there.

It seems to me this "desert experience" also overflows from the geographical, to the spiritual dimension of life. A translation of the Latin hymn, "Vene Sancte Spiritus"says "Like a giant furnace blast You dry up all my faculties" and "You cast us before you like dead leaves in winter's gale." Yes, the spiritual life is like a giant furnace blast drying up all my faculties which become like dead leaves in winter's gale! There is no lasting, consoling, attraction to spirituality which seems like a fleeting process of seeking ever, finding never! Yet Good Jesus, somehow you keep me going ever conscious of your Final Coming - yes Lord, you keep me coming and going, producing a kind of spiritual vertigo. Fortunately I am ever mindful of the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, "Jesus isn't concerened with success, only with effort!"

There is so much more that could be said, but I believe Margaret Silf says it best, "God will not fail to surprise you with new possibilities" Geographically and spiritually the dry seed, in hands, dry in the desert experience of life, will amazingly "burst forth in green growth" in God's own way and in God's own time showing the value of the Lents of life and then we can smell the flowers, Easter Lilies growing in the fertile soil around the "Stone rolled back!" This is the hope of us all who look for "Green Shoots In The Desert!" Thanks Margaret Silf for your inspirational essay.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis listens to a question from Vera Shcherbakova of the Itar-Tass news agency while talking with journalists aboard his flight from Cairo to Rome April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The situation in North Korea, he added, has been heated for a long time, "but now it seems it has heated up too much, no?"
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets children dressed as pharaohs and in traditional dress as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Francis took the risk, trusting in God. His decision transmitted a message of hope on the political front to all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike, who are well aware that their country is today a target for ISIS terrorists and is engaged in a battle against terrorism.
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists in the Oval Office at the White House on March 24 after the American Health Care Act was pulled before a vote. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Predictably Mr. Trump has also clashed with the Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on many of the policies he has promoted during his first 100 days.
Kevin ClarkeApril 28, 2017