Accidental Exegesis: To The Desert!
by Mark Gordon
Over at Vox Nova, Matt Talbot recently posted a beautiful meditation titled “A Blessed Reminder.” In it he wrote, “The austere and naked land reminds me … of my own impermanence and ultimate vulnerability. Abundance too often leads to confused priorities and muddles my perceptions of what my life is, and what my life means.” The movement into Lent has always been seen as the journey into a kind of desert, but as people accustomed to easy abundance we tend to focus on the apparent barrenness of it, the self-denial, not the richness that can be found there. As Matt knows better than most, far from being barren the desert is positively bursting with life. Reptiles, insects of every kind, mammals, birds, all sorts of shrubbery and trees, even flowers. But none of that is apparent to the occasional or disinterested eye. One has to enter the desert, engage it over time and at the level of existence, in order to know the intimate contours of its hidden and lively beauty.
The same is true with Lent, which is why simply passing through, with little substantial engagement, will never suffice for revelation or spiritual reward. A man may cross Death Valley in an air-conditioned SUV, but one can hardly say that he has really been there. In a similar way, a man may cross the Lenten landscape having hedged his pain and prayer – his engagement – only to emerge on the far side with the same confused priorities and muddled perceptions with which he entered. The Lord wants more for us than that.
The desert is mentioned explicitly only once in this Sunday’s readings, in the selection from Isaiah 43:
Thus says the LORD:
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Jesus, our brother, waits for us in the desert. He has made a way into and through it for us. We will experience the burning sand of self-denial and the hot sun of self-donation. And we will fill up the vast, empty spaces with prayers of contrition, praise and supplication. But the Lord promises to do something new, for his people and for each of us individually. Expecting barrenness, we will find rivers of grace and new life in the Spirit.
I’ll conclude this brief reflection with one of my favorite poems, titled “To The Desert,” by the Mexican-American poet and novelist Benjamin Alire Sáenz. With the poet, let our prayer this Lent be Sálvame, mi dios, trágame, mi tierra: Save me, my God! Consume me, my land.
I came to you one rainless August night.
You taught me how to live without the rain.
You are thirst and thirst is all I know.
You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,
The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand
Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
You wrap your name tight around my ribs
And keep me warm. I was born for you.
Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.
I wake to you at dawn. Never break your
Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,
Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,
I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.