Learn the Mysteries of the Desert This Lent

by Micah Murphy       February 9, 2016

"Are we to eat dried beans and roots for the rest of our lives? Surely we must find time to make a garden. Ah, my garden at Sandusky! And you could snatch me away from it! ... Of course, one wants to eat one's cake and have it, as they say in Ohio. But no further, Jean. This is far enough. Do not drag me any farther."

Fr. Joseph Vaillant, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

The human race began in a garden. Do you ever think about that? Do you stop and think to yourself, "Man, we used to live in a garden? Luscious fruits hung from every branch, aromatic spice filled the air and wafted through our nostrils, and everything was dewy green. What happened?"

We all know the story. Man. Woman. Snake. Fruit. Paradise lost. Exiled from the garden, our first parents took up residence in the desert. The fruits of life's pleasures - the few that remained - now grew on brambles and thorns. To get to them involved scratches and suffering, blood and tears. Generations passed. Decades turned to centuries, centuries to millennia. Man kept trying - and failing - to build a spiritual garden in the wilderness, a place he could cultivate these plants and grow them without thorns. A life where we could have it all, without the suffering. Then came another Man, like the first in all things but sin, who changed the world once more. It was that Man who first truly ventured into the desert and revealed its mysteries.

In her classic Western novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather paints a beautiful landscape of desert life, weaving her own experience of the American Southwest into the stories of Archbishop Latour and Father Vaillant, inspired by the true tale of Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Machebeuf, the first bishops of Santa Fe and Denver, respectively. The two French stalwarts were prepared for the trials of the rugged life, but if we're honest with ourselves, we'll recognize in their few spiritual weaknesses the abundance of our own. Now, in Lent, we might even find it especially easy to relate to Fr. Vaillant who, a bit more reluctant a missionary than his superior, longs for the comforts of his garden back home over the arid barrenness of their new reality. Already we're in the spiritual desert, cut off from paradise. Now, we're in our own liturgical desert, far from the relatively green garden of Ordinary Time. We may put our feet down, refusing to go any further into the wilderness, where there are no fruits at all; better to have pleasures with some suffering than no pleasures at all, we reason. "I'll give up chocolate," we tell ourselves, pondering desperately if there might be an easier thing to go without. It's human nature, after all, to prefer the garden, and the further we're dragged away from our comforts, the more willing we are, like Fr. Vaillant, to put our foot down and resist any more change. "This is far enough. Do not drag me any farther."

The good news is that God wants to bring us back into a garden. That's what Lent is all about: preparing us for heaven. How better to prepare us for heaven than to bring heaven into ourselves, to make our souls gardens in the midst of the desert of our fallen world? We are faced with a choice: the relative comfort we have in a lukewarm life on the edge of the desert, scraping ourselves to dig meager fruits from wild thorns, or hard-won true joy from our own gardens deep in the heart of the desert. Yet that desert is so wide and vast, so arid and full of thorns. "My life is not so bad. I will grow my garden here. This is far enough. Do not drag me any farther."

It is time we, too, learned the mysteries of the desert. The first is this: Only in the deep, dry, thorny interior, and not on the outskirts of the desert, may you grow your garden. You must press on into that dry, arid land full of snares. It is, like all mysteries, a paradox.

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." - Luke 9:24

We must press on. We must have courage. If we are unwilling to change, to adapt, to confront the challenges of the desert, we will be unsuccessful in making a garden for ourselves here. You cannot grow a garden in the lukewarm borderlands of the desert. "But surely God wants me to have these pleasures! They are goods He Himself made! It will be so much harder to trudge through the desert. He can't want that! This is far enough. Do not drag me any farther."

"The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness." - Pope Benedict XVI

Millennia ago, in our original garden home, the deceiver approached Eve with a simple lie:

"You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil." The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. - Genesis 3:4-6

God surely wanted our first parents to have knowledge and wisdom, to be - in their own way - like gods. Our divinization was a part of his plan - but not yet. And not one of the three characteristics of that fruit was a bad thing, either. We should eat fruit that's good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and - odd as it may seem to ascribe to fruit - desirable for gaining wisdom! But not when the fruit is forbidden by God. We must trust in God's commandments even when they do not square with our own observations.

So we come to the second mystery of the desert: Trust in God will always yield greater results than trust in self. God will always get us safely through the thorns and snares of the desert if we trust Him. This is true despite the fact that we do not know the mind of God, while knowing our own mind more or less completely, which gives us the illusion that we are more trustworthy. Nevertheless, it is God, not you or I, who can see the future and all present circumstances which remain to us nothing but uncertain darkness. We don't need to understand His reasoning to be faithful to His call; we will never be disappointed in trusting Him.

Yet even when we accept that we must trust Him, it is difficult to know what God wants us to do. On the outskirts, at least we can have some of the fruit of life's pleasures, even if we get scraped on a few thorns trying to bring them forth from the dry earth. "I don't know what I would do in the desert! At least here I have food and possessions and a name for myself, some good I can live out. The desert is empty. This is far enough. Do not drag me any farther."

We already examined the serpent's temptation of Eve, but let's look a bit closer.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. - Genesis 3:6

Our first parents' rejection of God was a failure of trust. They had bodily appetites, an appreciation for beauty, and an eagerness for wisdom. Surely, they could have reasoned that the same God who gave them these desires would fulfill them. They could have trusted. Yet they chose to fulfill these things themselves in precisely the way God forbade them, turning these mere desires into raging passions - lust, greed, and pride. These, not discomforts, are the true thorns of our exile into the spiritual desert. It is these three primordial thorns that occur again and again in scripture - they even brought down King Solomon, the wisest man in the history of Israel - they ensnare the most souls and they are everywhere! Even Jesus was faced by these temptations. Let's examine that moment in the life of Our Lord:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." He said in reply, "It is written: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'" - Matthew 4:1-4

Turning stones into bread. Wouldn't that be a cool trick?! More than a few of us wish we could turn rocks into chocolate every Lent. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days, and surely more intensely than you or I do, so it's not hard to see why the devil started with this one. But this is a temptation and Jesus knows it. There is something more important than the desires of the body, He says, something more essential to life. Jesus intends to stick to His fast, to abide by the command He received from the mouth of God. Christ defeated lust.

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, "I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me." Jesus said to him in reply, "It is written: 'You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.'" - Luke 4:5-8

To possess all the kingdoms, their wealth, their glory. Wasn't it Christ's mission to establish the Kingdom of God? Why not have the whole world handed to Him? But Jesus knew that possessing a kingdom meant nothing if that kingdom did not put God first. Christ defeated greed.

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: 'With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him in reply, "It also says, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'" - Luke 4:9-11

There were a lot of people at the Temple. Jumping off and being caught by angels would certainly have caused a stir; it would have, in fact, made many come over to Jesus' side. Yet we know that Jesus took great pains to conceal His divinity, only revealing it more directly to a few of his disciples, so that his miracles in ministry - those He worked for the good of others - testified to His identity. To do this would have been the easy way and also would have replaced precious faith with worthless spectacle. Christ defeated Pride.

Lust, greed, and pride were all defeated by Christ in the desert, which brings us to our third mystery of the desert: The desert's emptiness is the solution to its thorns. In our spiritual desert, outside the Garden of Eden, the devil tries hard to snare us, too. Temptation is like a fruit growing deep within a thorny bush; you can't reach the fruit you desire without getting snagged and scraped on the branches. Truly, there are thorns everywhere! Only in the emptiness of the desert, far from the stray fruits we may find on the outskirts, may we learn how to avoid these thorns. In the desert, there is no fruit, and so it is easy to avoid the thorns. Now we join Christ in the desert, and our Lenten practices bear this in mind. The three specific thorns of lust, greed, and pride - those favored particularly by the devil - are also particularly defeated by our sacrifices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting teaches us to separate the needs of our bodies from the wants of our bodies, almsgiving teaches us generosity over greed, and prayer puts us in our place relative to God and makes us mindful of our reliance on His providence. In Lent, we avoid life's pleasures, so that it becomes easier to avoid temptation. It is in this way that we may come to know God's will. When we have removed our own desires from the equation, we are free to consider His will alone.

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever. - 1 John 2:15-17

Then, and only then, when we have gone deep into the desert, trusted in God, and detached ourselves from our own desires, will we find the oasis God has made for us.

Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." - John 4:13-14

This Lent, learn the mysteries of the desert and plant a garden in your soul. You'll never regret it.

Micah Murphy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Micah Murphy

Micah Murphy is the development manager of the OneFaith web platform. After discerning out of priestly formation for his native Omaha, he earned his BA in theology and catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville and worked for several years as a youth minister and theology teacher before coming to work for Third Millennium Media, parent company of OneFaith. Micah enjoys theological discussion, creative design, and cartooning. He lives in rural Louisiana with his wife, Jennie, and their four children.

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