The desert can teach us a lot about life. I discovered something of this on a recent walking retreat in the Sahara, on which I was privileged to go, along with eleven other priests. We spent about eight days in the desert, walking about five and a half hours each day. We were led by Berber guides, who took care of us – provided us food, herded the camels which carried our luggage – kept us alive.
Every morning, we would get up as it became light, climb up the nearest dune, and pray morning prayer together, facing the rising sun. We would come together again, as the sun set for Vespers. If you’ve ever prayed the Divine Office, you know all the offices begin with the intonation from Psalm 70:1 “O God, come to my aid, make haste to help me!”.
We get this from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the first hermits of
Christianity. They recited the Psalms through the day, as they worked, trying
to still their hearts from the hundred and one ways it was being pulled apart.
One of the verses they settled on, as a constant refrain, was Ps 70:1. At the
end of the day, they would come to pray together invoking again, what they had
prayed through the day. The Desert Fathers primarily went to become hermits, to
be by themselves. But in the desert, you quickly realise just how much you need
others. While they maintained their solitude, there was genuine community as
well. When you’re dying of thirst, it is only the goodwill of someone who has
water that can save you. Everyone was equal and everyone needed each other.
Money, and who had it, had no value here. You couldn’t afford hostilities among
people, living together in a place so hostile to life. Left to yourself, you could die
But even human fellowship can go only so far. There are no hospitals nearby
if something serious happens. You quickly realise just how completely you are
dependent on God to save you. Which is probably why, this verse, “O God come,
make haste to help me!” became so dear to them. There is a sense of urgency
about that cry – maybe you missed hearing that during our prayers! In the
desert, however, you understand why it’s urgent, as probably it was for the Psalmist who wrote it. Here, strangely, your life automatically becomes rightly ordered. God
at the top, others second and yourself with or without your money, at the end.
This is just the opposite of the life lived in a city.
The city is a place built to serve man; man is in control, not God. It is a place of
self-reliance. We naturally value those we think have the power to control
their own futures and those of others. But finally, this idea of being in
control, is an illusion; but we are usually too blind to see it. This illusion
of control is made possible through money. We think we can eliminate all
uncertainty in our lives with it. Which is why Scripture says the love of money
is the root of all evil. Money is not bad in itself, but we pursue money
thinking we can be independent and in control. When this is the case, the
hierarchy of the desert where God is at the top, people next, and ourselves
last, becomes inverted. We are (or want to be) at the top (based on our net
worth). We still need people, but they come next – those whom we can control –
who can serve our needs. Last of all, when all else fails, we ask God to save
us. I’m not of course saying that anyone who lives in a city – home to all of
us – is bad by default. You can find great saints there. But in some ways,
these are the underlying spiritual principles which makes the city work.
When we understand that, we can make sense of the temptations. The first
temptation: turn these stones into bread. Use your power. Be independent. Don’t
rely on anyone else. Provide for yourself, protect yourself. And Jesus,
the only one who could have had some claim to be self-sufficient, rejects this
illusion of self-reliance. He is the Word of the Father and as such, his life
is one with the Father. He will not establish himself independently.
And then the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple. This was the
town square, the most important place in the city. And he says, reveal to
them you are the Messiah, do some spectacular feat. Throw yourself down. People
will follow you.
It’s as if the devil says, ‘Look, you want to be Messiah, let me help you.
I’ll show you how to attract the masses. But Jesus once again rejects this
temptation. What the devil was offering was like the following a celebrity has.
It is a parody of the desert community we spoke of earlier. There is no mutual
love and dependence over here, it’s a relationship of dominance, of power.
Celebrities needs the people to ‘worship’ them in some sense, to maintain their
place. But it can come crashing down at any moment. In some ways, the ‘friends’
we have on Facebook and followers on Twitter are not that different. Many
times, they are just numbers, we don’t even know them. And it contributes to
the illusion of power and control.
And finally, when Jesus rejects these, the devil reveals himself. Worship
me and everything will be yours. All through this, the devil in some ways
was trying to find out who this man was. He would have sensed something
extraordinarily holy about him, but he couldn’t have known for certain this was
God’s own Son. Because the devil can’t understand humility. And in trying to
expose the Son of God, it is he who becomes exposed. And at the same time, he
reveals what lies underneath all this self-reliance and control over our own
lives we so desperately seek. At it’s extreme, when we are at the center, we
don’t worship God; when God comes last, it is not too different from
worshipping the evil one. This Lent, let’s allow the humble Son of God to lead
us into the desert, delivering us from our false securities. And let us remain
with Mary, in whose prayers we will find victory.