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The Desert Experience
Daily Readings for the Season of Lent
by William McNamara

Ash Wednesday

The desert is not merely a natural phenomenon, but a way of life. Without the desert experience, we cannot achieve our destiny or fulfill our human vocation. It does not matter whether or not we experience the physical desert. Nor does it matter whether the desert experience takes an ancient or modern form. But it cannot take any random form. We easily popularize the phrase and distort its biblical meaning. For instance, we use the "desert experience" to designate and even justify a dehumanized and derivative existence in the city, an inexcusable enslavement to family, an addiction to work, a willingness to live without beauty and leisure, a political-cultural decline. But the real desert is a distinctive experience whose purity must be preserved.


We don't have to romanticize the desert. The God of Israel was not a reflection of the desert, he was also present in the cities. But in the cities of the Old Testament, people were so driven by lust for power, pleasure, money and honor that they never sought God there. They needed the utter simplicity, the silence and solitude, the emptiness of the desert. In the desert we discover the difference between essentials and nonessentials; the distinction between the vital and the moribund.


The desert is a destruction of mediocrity which is compromise worked out into a system. Mediocrity becomes impossible in the desert where everything is reduced to the rigid alternatives of life and death. We then rise up out of a sluggish culture, and regain a classical human stature as we respond to reality with authenticity and sensitivity according to a hierarchy of values in accord with the Supreme Value of Ultimate Reality.


A striking feature of the desert experience is the physicality of the wilderness. Biblical references to the wilderness and the monumental events that occurred there are not in every instance references to the physical desert, but always to places that share certain geographical characteristics: mountaintops, seasides, lakesides, hill country, and woods. They are always uncrowded, naturally beautiful, uncluttered, unhurried, solitary and still. There we are reborn, free to be our best selves.

From Jerusalem's towers or its neighboring hills you see vast expanses of desert. And it is to this day a howling desert wasteland. People still perish in the desert of the United States as well as the Middle East. You will not survive in the desert unless you affirm wholeheartedly and quick-wittedly its reality and come to terms with its brute surd facts.

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