Entering the desert

For this first Sunday in Lent, our readings begin, appropriately enough, at a beginning. Here is God after the Great Flood letting Noah, his family, and all the animals out of the ark, renewing his covenant with them, and shooing them back out into the wilderness of the newly dried world. The baptism of Jesus marks a similar new beginning in the healing of the world, and like Noah, he too is shooed out into the wilderness. And each of us has come, like a Noah, through the waters of baptism, each with our own interior zoo of wild and domesticated animals: a boat-ful of needs, desires, hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses. And with the blessing of the Father, by the urging of the Spirit we have been turned out of the ark with Christ into this desert of the monastery to be tested, refined and proved.

As nuns, our identification is with this particular episode in the life of Jesus more than perhaps any other. Following the early monastics of Egypt and Syria, following Julian in the desert of suburban Norwich, our life here is deliberately circumscribed by the desert of this gospel. We may impose some kind of order upon it in the outward forms of Rule and mode of life, but the reality of the desert remains: like God, the desert is not tame, and it is no respecter of persons.

Why then, am I continually surprised by the desert I carry inside myself, and by what I meet there? Why am I surprised by temptations to pride and vanity, by my own neediness and possessiveness? Why does it so surprise me to find among the very good things about community life prickly and thorny things as well? It is true that we can so romanticize The Desert and Christ's forty days in it that we lose all sense of its present reality: this annoyance, this small privation, this inconvenience, this whispering temptation, this realization of weakness; this is precisely the desert into which we have been called to be tested, tempered, and formed. In this desert and no other is where we are challenged to become real human beings sustained and renewed not by our own design and contrivance but by the mercy of God.

It is promised to us in the prophets that the desert inside and outside of ourselves will not always remain so. By love, by cooperation with God and his creatures, in the strength of our indelible attachment to Christ in baptism, this desert will no longer be a severe teacher, but become a garden and place of blessing.

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