Behind the forty-day preparation for Easter known as Lent (the word actually means “springtime”) is the image of the desert.
I think I can understand how mystics have found sustenance in the desert. Here the senses are heightened in a new way. One sees differently—sees more. One hears sounds that are drowned out by the noise of cities. And so over the centuries Christian ascetics have built dwellings for themselves in the desert (variously called hermitages, anchor holds, retreats).
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to make a trip to the desert. But I do think that desert experience can help us to understand something important about Lent. The Bible tells us two things about the desert: that it is dangerous (Mark’s Gospel says Jesus was surrounded by wild animals) and that it’s a place where we can hear the voice of God. The Gospel of Mark describes the prophetic voice as “crying out in the wilderness.” Of course, the wilderness does not have to be a place; it can also be a time. Lent is the season when we are invited to a more austere way of living, and the purpose of this austerity is to make us more alert to the presence of God.
In the desert we wait and we listen. Lent is not a time for talking. We should be obedient to the opening line of the Rule of Benedict: Listen! In that silence, we find the deepest form of prayer. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the psalmist.
As we look to tomorrow to begin Lent, what will we do to still our hearts during Lent? What will we do to give ourselves some desert time?