The Desert of Freedom

The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent was Luke's account of Christ's temptation in the desert. The desert is a heavy theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its significance anchored in the story of the Hebrews and their Exodus from Egypt. The desert, for the Israelites, was where they began to know God. Their place of physical deprivation became their place of spiritual sustenance. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton captures it well:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God's plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself--that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

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In light of this passage, a number of questions come to mind. Merton's words invite us to consider how we might access, today, a place where we have nothing to exploit, where we can be, as he says, "dependent upon no one but God...." In other words, what projects stand between us and the Creator? What preoccupations leave us, like the Hebrews before the Exodus, held captive, needing to be led out into the desert, into a place of discomfort and even fear, but a fear that churns into a holy peace? This is essentially the function of a retreat: to enter a kind of lovely isolation, to dwell in a place where we affirm once more who we are and whom we are called to be.

Is it the actual desert? Is it a mountain? Is it the sea? Everyone will answer this question differently. It's difficult to reach these areas in the midst of our daily obligations, in the midst of building a business, overseeing a family, managing foundations, taking exams, serving on boards and trying to be, in our own way and time, a success. But the questions still press themselves upon us: What, right now, is our wilderness? Where, for each of us, is that arena of solitude and inactivity where we let God in without a competitor?

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