Ahh, the Desert . . . a wonderful, idyllic garden of peace and light, a place of calm and clarity, a restful retreat where we can unburden ourselves and bask in the everlasting light of insight and truth. The Desert, a place of Silence, our favored friend who holds all the answers to life’s looming questions.
This wonderful Desert isn’t only a physical place; it is a state of mind, a frame of mind free from distractions, free from routines, free from noise—a Desert of Silence.
As Mother Teresa said: “In the silence of our heart, God speaks and you have to listen. Then in the fullness of your heart, because it is full of God, full of love, full of compassion, full of faith, your mouth will speak.” The Desert will surely supply us with the Silence we need to have our hearts filled with God and love and compassion and faith. Surely, the Desert will give us this alluring Silence.
“Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere — in the closing of the door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.” So says Mother Teresa. The Desert will surely lend us the Silence we need to hear God in the closing of doors, in the people who need us, in the singing birds, the fragrant flowers, the cuddly animals.
Paolo Coelho, in his enchanting little novella, The Alchemist, paints a literary picture of the Desert as a great teacher capable of imparting life’s wisdom to those who open their ears and hearts. In one scene, the Alchemist tells the protagonist: “The desert will give you an understanding of the world; in fact, anything on the face of the earth will do that. You don’t even have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.” The Desert will surely teach us the marvels of creation.
Ahh, the Desert of Silence. That’s where we want to be . . . right?
Recently, I spent a week away from home. With time off from school, away from friends and some family, I broke out of my normal routine and had time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday living. I still had to keep up with my busy work and school commitments, but nevertheless, the week away felt like a small Desert Experience because I was outside my comfort zone. However, I found myself quite stressed out, missing my home, missing the everyday normalcy of my comfortable routine. During the week, I realized just how romanticized the Desert had become in my mind.
The Desert of Silence isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It can also be jarring, barren, a wasteland with nowhere to hide, no illusion to appease our aching minds. We speak of retreats as peaceful experiences, but maybe the hustle and bustle of our lives comforts us, maybe the ever-growing to-do lists give us structure, give us purpose, give us meaning. In the Desert of Silence there are no distractions, no soothing lullabies, no friends to congregate with, no enemies to battle against, no causes to tackle, no one to help, nothing to do . . . just ourselves and the Creator. Silence. Nothing.
As Cardinal Robert Sarah said: “Silence awakens the anxiety of confronting the bare realities that are at the bottom of our soul. Our interior temple is often so ugly that we prefer to live on the outside of ourselves in order to hide in worldly devices and noises.”
That doesn’t sound like a wonderful, idyllic garden of peace and light, a place of calm and clarity, a restful retreat.
Let’s listen to the words of Dysmas de Lassus, the French monk and Minister General of the Carthusians. “When a candidate comes to make a retreat with us, many memories rise again to the surface. They have been in him for a long time, covered up by the noises of life. When the commotion stops, he can no longer escape, and he understands that the silence and solitude of the cell that he perceived as a place of rest are also a place of trial where he will have to face the most difficult combat: the battle with himself. It is a matter of taming the menagerie that lives inside us if we want the wild animals to be able to leave us in silence some day.”
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist finds himself in the Desert. And maybe, just maybe, he isn’t in the idyllic Desert of peace and calm; maybe he’s in a state of trial and tribulation. Maybe John’s time in the Desert is challenging, hard, uncomfortable, even painful. Maybe he had to face the most difficult combat: the battle with himself.
But it is in the Desert that the word of God came to John, and it is out of the Desert John’s voice cried out: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
What might we hear if we go to the Desert? At times, our Desert Experiences may be peaceful, at other times, they may be painful, but do we have the courage to remain in the Desert anyways? What if our Desert Experience, whether figurative or literal, is uncomfortable and unpleasant? What if we do not experience the peace and clarity we so desperately wanted? It can be anxiety-provoking to be away from noise and distractions and others who can comfort us and tell us what we want to hear. In the Silence of our Deserts, there are only ourselves and God, and ourselves may be filled with pain, doubt, guilt, sin, confusion; in the quiet of our Deserts, we cannot hide from ourselves.
Can we be brave like John the Baptist? Can we be brave like John the Baptist and embrace the Desert with its barrenness and emptiness and uncertainty? Can we accept that the Desert of Silence may be peaceful, and it may be painful? Can we be brave like John and wait for the word of God?
If we can be brave like John the Baptist and embrace the Desert of Silence, then I have one final question: can we also be brave enough, like John, to be like a voice crying out from the Desert? In the Desert of Silence, in a place of clarity, free from distraction and noise, we may hear the word of God. What will we hear? What will we be told? Will we bring God’s truth out of the Desert, like John, and into the world—the world with its clutter and chaos and confusion?
While I was away the other week, I had a tiny Desert Experience, and at times, it was challenging. If you and I are going to be like John the Baptist and venture into the Desert to hear the word of God, we need to be brave because that idyllic Desert of Silence might also be an inner trial of pain and suffering.
I don’t know if you are anything like me, someone who has romanticized the Desert of Silence—this notion of escaping to a peaceful place of clarity and certainty—but perhaps consider the possibility that the Desert holds challenge as well as calm, pain as well as peace, tears as well as triumphs, questions as well as answers, fears as well as joys, stress as well as salvation.
Perhaps John’s experience in the Desert was idyllic, but I have a feeling it wasn’t. I have a feeling that John, like all of us, experienced a full range of human emotion while in the Desert. And if that’s the case, let’s give John more credit for his bravery, and let’s strive to emulate John’s courage as we journey off into the de-romanticized Desert of Silence.