Desert Silence — Prayer and Transformation

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“[Immediately,] the Spirit drove (ἐκβάλλει, ekballei) Jesus
out into the desert (εἰς τὴν ἔρημον, eis ten eremon),
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted (πειραζόμενος, peirazomenos) by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent and believe in the gospel.””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

εὐθὺς (euthus, “immediately” or “at once” - and omitted from the Text proclaimed this Sunday in our Churches) is one of those challenging words that describe an essential element of Gospel discipleship. A disciple acts immediately or “at once.” During the Christmas Season, Mary and the shepherds taught this same lesson as each “went in haste.” The ‘twist’ this Sunday is that εὐθὺς describes no disciple. Jesus is the One Who “at once” is driven “out into the desert” following His Baptism in the Jordan River by His cousin, John. The Marcan account suggests that there is ‘somthing’ about Baptism that is ordered to an immediate immersion into the desert. As usual, this Evangelist minces no words. Going to the desert is not a casual, leisurely stroll in and to the park. Jesus’ movement into the desert is an energy-filled propulsion bordering on a violent hurling forward from water to aridity effected by “the Spirit.”

More than just a place, the ἔρημος (eremos, desert) in the Gospel according to Saint Mark is also an experience, an event. Something happens in the ἔρημος that is essential for life. As an experience, the ἔρημος offers deliverance from danger and sets one on the path to safety. Admittedly, it is hard to fathom how the hostility of a ἔρημος can offer safety. After all, life in the ἔρημος is an intense struggle every second of life. But this is precisely what Israel discovered in the ἔρημος as she was drawn from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. The struggle to live in the ἔρημος along with the vicissitudes of fidelity and infidelity to the Covenant way of living ultimately tested (πειραζόμενος, peirazomenos) Israel to receive her identity as the Chosen People. The ἔρημος becomes for Israel the way she learns and knows who she is: a Chosen People.

For Jesus, His Baptism in the River Jordan was, among a number of facets, a theophany – a divine showing, a moment of revelation. In the rather violent rending of the heavens when Jesus is baptized,  He is revealed as “My Beloved Son.” Once that pronouncement thunders in His life, Jesus is literally thrown into the desert experience. He permits Himself and avails Himself of the Spirit’s work to lead Him deeply in the pre-Public Ministry work of that intensifies His identity as Son, radically in communion with His Father in the silence of desert prayer. In his The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah writes:
"Silence is of capital importance because it enables the Church to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, imitating his thirty silent years in Nazareth, his forty days and forty nights of fasting and intimate dialogue with the Father in the solitude and silence of the desert. Like Jesus, confronted with the demands of his Father’s will, the Church must seek silence in order to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ. The Church must be the reflection of the light that pours out from Christ.”
Silence transforms all aspects of our being: body, mind and heart. This solitude, as Fr Henri Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart, changes us at our core:
“In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. That is the struggle. It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength.”
Nouwen’s last point about the struggle is crucial. Lent is not a time to enter the spiritual olympics and attempt to prove to God ‘I can do it.’ Lent, as all aspects of faithful living in Jesus Christ must be lived in the mode of response. We need the assistance of our Lord in every step of life. Even the penance we undertake during this Season is a response - we can only ‘do’ these acts because of the Grace given to us as pure gift. For that reason, Jesus’ desert experience is the model for Lenten (and beyond) living. In silence, we come to know who we are in the One Who loves infinitely and showers each with all that is needed.

It is therefore no coincidence that in-and-around these early days of Lent the Church celebrates the Rite of Election and the Call to Continual Conversion. This joyful Season is the time of intense, proximate preparation for Baptism-Confirmation-Holy Eucharist wherein the soon-to-be-designated Elect receive the Gift of Divine Adoption – a whole new identity, a whole new creation. It is in this context of Baptism that those who are already configured to Jesus Christ in the waters of rebirth are thrown by the same Spirit into the ἔρημος to have that configuration, that identity intensified. That is the reason we respond with attentiveness to the works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Works, not in the sense of ‘earning points;’ not in the sense of a Pelagian spiritual Olympics attempting to prove to God what “I” can do and how good I am. Rather, like Jesus we permit ourselves to be available to the Spirit who drives us into the testing, the experience, the ἔρημος to come to grips with what it means to be a “child of God” who is being formed for immersion into the Water of Life or the renewal of that Life this Easter.