by Fr. Pat McNulty.
If I remember correctly, it seems to me that I have written at least one Advent article a year in this newspaper about the desert. Many of the details of my time in the Sinai back in 1976 are somewhere in all those articles; so I won’t bore you by repeating them.
But if you remember any of those articles, you already know that Patrick of Combermere was no Lawrence of Arabia, even though, like Lawrence, I did travel in the desert on a camel.
Well, actually I traveled into it by foot tied to a man who was on a camel. The camel wouldn’t let me mount, and since we were traveling at night, my Bedouin guide, not wanting me to get lost, had a long cord connecting my wrist to his.
Thankfully, with his stick to inspire the camel, we moved very, very slowly. But even in the dark at that speed, I knew I was in the desert—big time!
Advent is filled with the imagery of desert from whence John the Baptist came to "prepare the way of the Lord." I guess that’s why Advent always takes me back to my time in the desert.
Anyhow, my Bedouin guide took me to an area five hours into the desert by camel, and while I stayed there, he came once a week to bring me food.
In that area was the cave where I stayed and total, absolute silence. My guide stayed with me the first day to get me settled. Then when he "drove off into the sunset" on his 1976 camel, I learned what a panic-attack is.
There I was, alone in the middle of the Sinai Desert, without camels, curds, or a clue where I was! This wasn’t a movie! This was for real! What had I done? "Patrick," I said to myself, "You are in deeeeeeeep trouble!"
But gradually I became a more or less comfortable desert-dweller. I learned how to deal with the heat and the glaring sun and how to ward off the critters on land—bugs and snakes—and in the air—mosquitoes by the gazillions at night. (There was a fresh water pit close by.)
I began to pray and read the Bible, and read the Bible and pray. Then I read the Bible out loud and prayed out loud, and prayed and read the Bible out loud.
All of which to say, I adjusted well to the geography, but I didn’t do too well with the silence.
In any case, I had to leave the desert sooner than I expected. The weather changed abruptly, and I had made no preparation for the rainy season.
And ever since then, whenever Advent comes around, I think about the desert, and I often ask myself, What did I go out to the desert to see?
What I thought I would see was God—not in any extraordinary fashion, but in some way that I had not seen him up until then.
Well, maybe I did think that I would have at least one mystical experience. "I mean, after all, I may not be Abba Anthony, Lord, but at least, I’m here! Hell-o!"
What I was not aware of then but am very aware of now is that I did "see" God in the desert, but he wasn’t whom I had expected.
But before I saw God, I saw me. It was a me I had never met before, and it was a me whom I was not particularly happy with at the time.
I have since learned, of course, that it is not necessary to go into the actual desert to see that "me." But, to see ourselves as we really are is only possible when we finally experience that that "me" is totally dependent on God for everything.
And one thing for sure is that in the desert-desert you can’t get away from that "me."
For in the desert-desert, you are dependent on God for everything—for food and water, for protection from the elements and from bugs and serpents, for transportation, for sight and sound, for prayer, and sanity. Just like a little baby.
And of course, that is precisely what desert experiences are for.
Because when we finally see ourselves as we really are—totally dependent on God for everything—then the Spirit can teach us to "see" God as God really is—revealed to us, in our flesh, in our desert, and in Jesus Christ, from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond.
And only in so far as we "put our own flesh" on that revelation do we "see" anything at all as it really is, whether "it" be science or sociology or economics or psychology or especially God.
I think that one thing I learned in the desert was that I feared the way God was dealing with my loneliness and my weakness more than I feared them in themselves: He was too slow, too quiet, too hidden.
Besides that, following Jesus is like being tied to somebody on a camel and led out into the night to a lonely place in a desert. No burning bushes. No visions.
All you have is faith. Just faith! Faith until you can’t pray or read the Bible. Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith, until there is nothing left but faith.
And then the Lord of the desert can reveal himself to us as he really was when he came to earth—as a helpless baby in a cave.
Faith is the secret of the desert, the bush that burns in the solitude.
But to have that gift we don’t have to go to the Sinai Desert. All we have to do is to go into the depths of our own loneliness, our own pain, our own fears.
And we can shut down our sensual self for a while (during Advent?) and learn to see everything with the desert-eyes of faith. We can do that in our own house, in our car, and while we jog or scrub a floor or recuperate from an illness.
That’s why we of Madonna House are so smitten by the faith of Catherine Doherty. For on the wings of blind faith she could fly from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Golgotha and back again while answering letters, repenting of her sins, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, giving a lecture, sorting jewelry or scrubbing the floor in her cabin.
And she learned that faith in her own desert where she first saw herself as she really was, and then God as God really is.
That’s why one of her first books was, "Poustinia" (desert)—a book about the call to desert faith, and about how to live there, how to die there, and how to rise up with Christ from there. For the poustinia is where she learned her primary images of Christian life: Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Golgotha which all lead to the Resurrection.
Eventually everyone has to "go out to the desert to see!"
That’s why we have these wonderful, holy seasons of Advent and Lent. For we have to go "out," away from our self, in order to be led "in," where we see with the eyes of Christ.
We have to go out in order to realize that Jesus lives in the desert of our hearts waiting for us to acknowledge how utterly dependent we are on his love, his promises and his presence in every single event in our lives—from the moment of our Bethlehem-birth to the moment of our Golgotha-death and our glorious resurrection. And that is ultimately what we go out to the desert to see.
Every year the Holy Spirit recalls us to that extraordinary vision in the desert of faith—God as a Baby in a cave; God, totally vulnerable and asking us to be that vulnerable in Christ, to God and to each other; God, helpless and quiet throughout all of time knowing that we are prone to "kill" him, one way or the other, but loving us totally anyway.
And in our life of faith we learn that that is what he is asking of us. That’s why it is so important for us to come and reverence this "Baby" at this time of the year.
Faith! However weak and sinful we may be, if we humbly kneel and kiss this mysterious God-Child, he will wrap his mighty arms around our poor hearts and give us a gift that overcomes Powers and Principalities!
What gift? Faith. Faith. More faith. Until there is nothing left but faith! And then….
You mean that’s it!? No visions? Nothing extraordinary? Just kissing a little baby in a silly little crib?
"Well, what did you go out to the desert to see?"
"I don’t know. You tell me!"
"I just did."
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