Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert With Jesus (Week 1)

Yesterday was the initial gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School.

The theme of this year’s retreat in daily living is In the Desert with Jesus. As I explained to the participants yesterday, by that I mean more than desert in the narrow sense of Jesus’ actual days in the desert facing temptation (although we will pray with that). But desert in the broader sense of place of testing, place of struggle, place of pain – place of darkness as well as light. During this retreat, we will walk with Jesus in the desert and, by so doing, get more deeply in touch with our own desires and longings, our temptations, our weaknesses…and our strengths.

My reflection, and the participant’s prayer this first week, focused on the invitation to each of us to follow Jesus, an invitation extended to each of us. I talked about some of the things the prevent us from fully accepting that invitation and also gave some instruction on praying with scripture for the benefit of the newcomers among the group.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 30:17. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here. (Day 2 prayer is listed as a separate handout. A version of that exercise is here.)


Jesus in the Desert

My airplane reading on my return to Minneapolis from New York yesterday was a novel called Quarantine, by Jim Crace. The back cover of the book describes it as “an imaginative and powerful retelling of Christ’s fabled forty-day fast in the desert,” which is what prompted my husband to pick it up for me. I’ve enjoyed several fictional accounts of Bible stories, including Anita Diamont’s The Red Tent (the story of Dinah in the book of Genesis) and Elizabeth Berg’s The Handmaid and the Carpenter (about Mary and Joseph) and so he thought I might be interested in this one.

I’m not sure I found the book as “stunning” or “immensely impressive” as some of the writers whose comments grace the back cover of the book. But one of the things that did strike me quite powerfully was the description of Jesus during his 40-day fast. Unlike others who went on a “quarantine,” who broke their fast at sunset, Jesus refrains completely from food and drink for the duration.

I think when we listen to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ time in the desert, we picture Jesus emerging from the desert after 40-days looking much the same as he did when he walked in. Matthew tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry,” a description that does little to conjure up a realistic image of what that time must have been like for Jesus.

Here is Crace’s description of Jesus after he had been in the desert for thirty of those days:

[H]e found the strength to drag himself – as good as saved, as good as dead – out of the cave, on to the entrance rock [of the cave in which he was staying]. He clung to it, his body naked to the wind. Already bones had pierced his skin. His chest had folded in on him. Sores on his legs and mouth no longer even tried to heal. His teeth and gums stuck out like balconies across his face. He could not shift the pain behind his eyes, though he wsa almost blind. He did not feel the cold. In fact, he hardly registered the wind now that he was wrapped in it. he could not separate the wind from all the rushing in hsi ears. He was as numb as wood. They could have driven nails into his feet. He’d not have felt a thing. His heart was too weak now to send his blood as far as that.

Jesus, in his humanity, experienced exactly what any human being would experience. He didn’t sit placidly in a desert for 40 days, emerging clean and healthy looking. His suffering was real. Descriptions like this, while fictionalized accounts, are a good reminder of what Jesus having been “fully human” means.

Forty Days in the Desert

We are now almost three weeks into this 40-day Lenten season. The 40 days is meant to call to our minds the 40 days that Jesus fasted and was tempted in the desert.

I keep coming back to this image of the desert, which I think is a good one for us during this Lenten period. In the desert, the roots of plants must grow deeper in search of life-giving water. In the desert we need to look underneath the dry, dusty exterior, to see signs of life hidden below the surface.

Lent invites us into the desert, to a place where we can grow in understanding of who we are. In the words of a Ruth Burgess poem (The Desert Waits), “The desert always waits, ready to let us know who we are – the place of self-discovery.

That is not always easy. As Burgess notes, “we fear, and rightly, the loneliness and emptiness and harshness.” If we go into the desert, we are not quite sure what we will find, and we may find some things that are not easy to look at. But the journey into the desert is not one we are asked to take alone. God is there with us, and, when we need it, God will send his angels to comfort us.

We could spend our Lent just doing the easy, “surface” things – skipping a meal here or there, putting a few extra dollars in the collection plate, and the like. Or, we could accept the invitation to burrow down deep with God. To enter into that desert and see what it would look like to come out the other side.