The Desert

Cardinal on Feeder c. J. Patrick Mahon

Cardinal on Feeder
c. J. Patrick Mahon

“Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’ (Mt 21-23) Knowing the secret code or the secret handshake will not get us anywhere with God. God requires that we listen (be obedient) and act accordingly and yet, like Paul, we know that perfect obedience on our part is impossible! Frustration, anxiety, dread, angst, the desert, the dark night, the void, the abyss, emptiness—call it what you will (Just do not call it original sin. There never was a state of perfection from which we fell.) Any of these terms describes our inane tendency to not do that which we should. The false self driven by the survival instinct so often frustrates our desire to do the will of God.

We are on a journey—a journey home to full life in God. Odysseus took ten years to get home and one significant segment of his journey was a descent into the nether world. Joseph Campbell speaks of the hero’s journey which I see to be the journey from being driven by the survival instinct into the love of God. Some are so comfortable with the gods of their false self that they never leave the comfortable confines of home. Fortunately, others hear the call to awake. They heed the summons to become more than what they are and take the first steps on the journey. Jesus heard the call of the Father when John baptized him. He realized what we all must realize—we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. Thus begins the journey. The desert experience purifies us and we return to life in community with the boon—a life totally dependent on God so we can share God with all others.

Jesus’ journey led him to the desert just as Paul’s conversion experience led him to Arabia. Like Jesus and Paul, we must go into the desert that lies buried deep within us and encounter the demons and devils that keep us securely locked in the comfort and safety of the false self. The desert can be a harsh desolate barren place and it can also be a place of rebirth. Stripped of all illusions, we can see the false self/survival instinct for what it is—NOTHING.

Here prayer, not in the sense of mumbled multiplied words, takes us to a place of rest in God and God alone. In prayer, Jesus affirms the love of God which he enfleshed. Looking at God while God looks at us allows the Divine Physician to go to work. How often we say, “Thy will be done” when we really mean “My will be done.”

In what Merton calls “Prayer of the Heart,” the demons and devils that dwell deep down in our shadow/false self slowly emerge and we gently let go of their hold over us. Prayer strips us of our illusions and grounds us in the nothingness of God who emptied Godhood to make room for creation. Thus, we must come to a place of total abandonment based on our sheer sense of helplessness to become more than what we are. This seems to be what Richard Rohr means by the way down, the way of subtraction. We are soon face down in the burning desert sands. Paul called it kenosis—emptying ourselves to make room for God within us.

[An excursus—creation exploded from the emptiness of God and has been expanding—going forth from the source—ever since. At some point billions of years from now the universe will stop expanding and will collapse in upon itself like many a supernova. At this point, the absolute no-thingness that we call God will reemerge into the fullness that is emptiness, into the abyss that is Love, into the scarcity that is abundance. There are a number of koans in the preceding sentence that we can ponder.]

Amid all this, the psalms, like Psalm 16, can be a wonderful source of life and joy (Be joyful. Remember that Francis I does not like sourpusses!). They help us cry out to God in our emptiness and angst:

1-2 Keep me safe, O God,
I’ve run for dear life to you.
I say to God, “Be my Lord!”
Without you, nothing makes sense.

And these God-chosen lives all around—
what splendid friends they make!

Don’t just go shopping for a god.
Gods are not for sale.
I swear I’ll never treat god-names
like brand-names.

5-6 My choice is you, God, first and only.
And now I find I’m your choice!
You set me up with a house and yard.
And then you made me your heir!

7-8 The wise counsel God gives when I’m awake
is confirmed by my sleeping heart.
Day and night I’ll stick with God;
I’ve got a good thing going and I’m not letting go.

9-10 I’m happy from the inside out,
and from the outside in, I’m firmly formed.

You canceled my ticket to hell—
that’s not my destination!

11 Now you’ve got my feet on the life path,
all radiant from the shining of your face.
Ever since you took my hand,
I’m on the right way.

Sirach 2 lays out the game plan for life in God:

My child, if you are going to serve the Lord, be prepared for times when you will be put to the test. Be sincere and determined. Keep calm when trouble comes. Stay with the Lord; never abandon him, and you will be prosperous at the end of your days. Accept whatever happens to you. Even if you suffer humiliation, be patient. Gold is tested by fire, and human character is tested in the furnace of humiliation. Trust the Lord, and he will help you. Walk straight in his ways, and put your hope in him.

All you that fear the Lord, wait for him to show you his mercy. Do not turn away from him, or you will fall. All you that fear the Lord, trust him, and you will certainly be rewarded. All you that fear the Lord, look forward to his blessings of mercy and eternal happiness.

10 Think back to the ancient generations and consider this: has the Lord ever disappointed anyone who put his hope in him? Has the Lord ever abandoned anyone who held him in constant reverence? Has the Lord ever ignored anyone who prayed to him? 11 The Lord is kind and merciful; he forgives our sins and keeps us safe in time of trouble. 12 But those who lose their nerve are doomed—all those sinners who try to have it both ways! 13 Doom is sure to come for those who lose their courage; they have no faith, and so they will have no protection. 14 Doom is sure to come for those who lose their hope. What will they do when the Lord comes to judge them?

15 Those who fear the Lord do not disobey his commands; those who love him will live as he wants them to live.16 Those who fear and love the Lord will try to please him and devote themselves to the Law. 17 Those who fear the Lord are always ready to serve him. They humble themselves before him, and say,

18 We place our destiny in the hands of the Lord, not in human hands, because his mercy is as great as his majesty.

Using lectio divina to ponder these readings can enhance our prayer life. Here is a guide to lectio if you are not familiar with the practice–



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