The desert—place of renewal and turning your life around. John the Baptizer went into the desert and preached repentance. People who went to John in the desert expected to see a prophet, a messenger from God. They did not go, as The Message translation says, to see a “weekend camper” or a “sheik dressed in silk pajamas.”
After the church got cozy with Constantine’s empire, Christians went into the desert. These men and women went to the desert to turn their lives around. They went to re-discover Gospel values which so often are counter to the values of empire.
Thomas Merton went into the desert of the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in 1941 to find the values and structures which would turn his life around. It was a true metanoia, a real turning around–from hard-drinking playboy to contemplative prophet.
After he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain [Dante’s seven storey mountain in the Purgatorio] in 1948, hundreds of men, disillusioned by war and the empty world, followed him into the Gethsemani desert. At one time there were over two hundred monks and aspiring monks at the monastery. Some were housed in tents. They went into the desert like Merton to discover true Gospel values–love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness.
Jesus went into the desert to confront the Evil One—the powers and principalities. Jesus’ desert experience honed his relationship with the One he called Abba God. Jesus was on his way to coming into union with Abba.
Yet, when he returned from the desert his opponents chided him. He partied with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. The leaders put him down and he responded, “John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man came feasting and you called him a lush.”
During Advent, we go into the desert to re-discover once again the values that Jesus proclaimed. Jesus shows us Abba God, the tender compassionate God who, as Isaiah says, will never abandon us. Jesus shows us the Nonviolent God who gives us the Prince of Peace as God again reaffirms the eternal promise of the peace we so long for.
Merton discovered that his desert was really wide open to the world and its needs. He became from his monastic cell and later his hermitage the “Conscience of the Peace Movement” in the 1960s. He was in his desert solitude one with humanity. He was one with people “walking around shining like the sun” because the love of God shone through them. His contemplative lifestyle led him to prophet regarding racism, war, and especially, nuclear weapons.
What will we see, hear, and do when we emerge from our Advent desert? What will people say about us? Will they notice any difference? Will they see the love of God shining is us like the sun? Will they see prophets or people parading around in silk pajamas?