The Desert in the Bible
The desert in the bible, is described as “great and terrible, with venomous serpents and scorpions and thirsty arid ground (Dt 8:15).
The desert is a refuge of fugitives and bandits; to lose one’s way in the desert means certain death (Jb 6:18).
It is also “a haunt of demons” (Is 13:20).
The people of Israel will always be aware of their desert background, the formative period of their history, when they first met Yahweh and experienced His protection (Dt 8:14 ; 11:5 Jer 2:6).
It was in the desert that Israel was tested and failed; 40 years of wandering was to be their punishment (Nm 14:32).
Yahweh will lead Israel back into the desert in order to speak to her heart and recover her love (Ho 2:16).
Then the wilderness and the arid land will rejoice; the desert will be glad and blossom” (Is 35:1)
The desert is always a reminder of the encounter of man with God. Abraham, the father of all the faithful, was sent to the desert where he awaited the fulfillment of God’s promises. Moses became a nomad in his constant journeying through the desert, from the slavery of Egypt to the veil of the Promised Land. Elijah and all the great prophets were purified by God in the desert and consumed there by fire for the calling shown to them (I Kings 19:8) John the Baptist began his mission in the desert (Lk 3:2).
Jesus Himself was led by the Spirit into the desert. For 40 days He was there, praying and fasting and tempted by the devil, before He started His public ministry (Mt 4:1). Jesus in the desert expressed the fullness of faith: that God is God and He alone is worth serving. Periodically He retired to desolate places where He would pray (Mt 14:13 ; Mk 1:35). He taught His disciples to do the same (Mk 6:31-32).
The period which Paul spent in Arabia after his conversion was probably a sojourn in the desert (Gal 1:17-18). In the apocalyptic vision of the last days, the woman flees from the serpent to a place prepared by God in the desert (Rev 12:6).
Spirituality of the Desert
As above, in the biblical language the theme of struggle (liberation from oppression, purification, conversion, turning away from idolatry) is symbolized by the desert. Since the earliest years of Christianity, the call for more radical faith brought people to the desert. Nevertheless the desert for them was more than a geographical place – it was a spiritual attitude. The external has always been related to an interior displacement; as they used to say “change of spirit and not of place.”
The experience of the desert is an essential aspect of following Jesus. We are not true Disciples of Christ if we avoid the crossing through our dry and weary land. We cannot know about God if we have not been desolate, purified and renewed by His love, in the desert.
What is really the desert? What is its meaning?
First of all, the desert is those periods of emptiness and aridity that confront us. Sometimes life becomes very difficult; the wounds make our soul look as if it has been contaminated by leprosy and our eyes become tired of entertaining illusions. Everything we do, even our good works and duties , seems to go in circles without touching our hearts. Routine, disappointment, betrayal, criticism, loneliness, goodbyes sin and death are really desert situations in our journey.
Secondly, the desert is an important step in deepening of our faith. It is a way of maturing Christian love. Through it we descend to the depths of our being and there we learn the secrets of God. We have to question all our previous images of God (ideas, rites, events, places) in order to rediscover His greatness, which can never be reduced to any scheme. This makes us permanent travelers following His footprints; God does not tolerate any settling down.
In the desert our spirit is fortified by facing temptation; either we surrender ourselves to God or we close within ourselves fleeing from Him. Yes, in the desert we pray beyond our fears, we gather courage, we pronounce words of truth, we purify our spirit, we prepare ourselves to act on the path that God Himself will show us.
Creating our own Desert
If we cannot go to the desert, then the desert must come to us. There are moments in our life that we badly need the desert because we are very confused, we cannot continue to masquerade our mediocrity, we feel so wounded or simply because we are anxious for deeper love, peace, and truth. In short, we have to go to the desert when we are looking for God as the foundation of our existence.
How do we create our desert? What are the necessary elements of it?
-Solitude and Silence. For a certain time we must be alone; absence of persons, change of occupations and avoiding distractions. A great emptiness, which we are left with only ourselves and God.
-Austerity of life. Self-control in regard to eating and drinking. Even fasting as a way of abnegation. Poverty of means, Freedom from what is unnecessary. Work as solidarity with creation and against idleness that is the source of vices.
-Listening to God’s word. Prayer is the focus of reorientation of life. The dialogue with God becomes the main point of our searching. God is placed number one, the absolute in our lives.
-Practice of mercy. We experience that God loves us first and we accept His unconditional pardon. We renounce judging ourselves and others. We conquer evil through goodness. In the process of an inner liberation, we make options for light, sincerity, generosity. We analyze our past and look for the roots of our deceptions. We question attitudes and criteria, modes of egoism. We make a strong decision for new values and lifestyle, counting on the grace of God.
The Goal of the Desert
At the end of every desert there is an oasis. God will not allow us to be ensnared or stopped by our problems. Through the struggle we arrive at the consolation of God’s fidelity.
God alone gives meaning to all other realities. In His love we learn how to love: we become aware of our brothers and sisters abandoned on the side of the road. We find reconciliation within ourselves. We see things with new spirit. The chaos is over and we are no longer caught up between dream and reality.
Crisis and pains become fountains of strength. We radiate peace. We want to keep the desert in our heart, as the way for unselfish love. We bring the desert to our daily life; in the middle of the crowd and into the thousand worries that burden us. We do not tame our thirst for eternity.
Desert is the true name for Christian discernment: it is in the depth of ourselves where we can find God calling us. It is there where we understand our mission. It is in bareness of our desert that we perceive God’s gifts. Reflection, silence, transformation, prayer, radical commitment and unlimited generosity are the elements of an authentic Christian calling.
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