Lent: Follow Jesus into the desert
February 20, 2020
“At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert …” – Mt 4:1
The spot where Jesus was tempted in the desert is a dusty, rocky, “difficult” place – but at the same time “it’s also really beautiful,” Liz Kelly says.
For Jesus, that austere, beautiful setting was a place of fasting, purification and preparation for the important work that was ahead of him, said Kelly, a college instructor, author, speaker and spiritual director who has traveled to the site.
Catholics today are called to follow Jesus into the desert – in a spiritual sense – during Lent, said Kelly and Father Damian Czerniak, a Jesuit priest and teacher at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha.
That spiritual journey takes people away from the commotion of the world to a quiet place where they can hear God and be purified and prepared by him for Easter and the mission he is calling them to, they said. The journey involves prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but also freedom and grace through detachment.
By entering into the desert during Lent – which begins Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26 – Catholics follow the footsteps of many other figures in the Bible including prophets and the entire nation of Israel, Father Czerniak said.
In the desert “we can find ourselves and God in us,” he said. “We see what is inside our hearts, and are challenged.”
Father Czerniak said he and other Jesuits enter a spiritual desert when they participate in eight-day silent retreats. “We retreat from what we are doing. We find the truth about ourselves and what we can change.”
Lay people also need time to retreat into silence, even if just for a few minutes, Father Czerniak said.
Lent is a preparation for Easter, “the most important solemnity of the church and the basis of our faith,” he said. “We want to be ready.”
Jesus, fully God and fully human, underwent temptations in the desert to show us that temptations happen, he said.
Christ’s temptations were as real and visceral as those people today endure, Kelly said. He relied on his Father for help, she said, an example others could follow.
Lent is a time “to be in truth about ourselves, to see where we fall short and for what we can apologize for” in the sacrament of reconciliation, Father Czerniak said.
Jesus points people to the desert for their own purification and preparation, said Kelly, an adjunct professor in Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas and managing editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.
She will be speaking at St. Patrick Parish in Gretna on March 7 for a free Women’s Lenten Reflection Morning. One of her talks will focus on “Walking the Via Dolorosa With Mother Mary.”
“We need desert time to purify and prepare,” Kelly said, “so that we may do the work that God is giving us to do.”
“And when we don’t get that desert time, we get chaos: interiorly, mentally, spiritually. We get confusion. We start to doubt God’s loving goodness and our call in life.”
As a spiritual director, she sees problems with people constantly on social media. They tell her: “I don’t know what God is asking me to do.”
“One of the first things I tell them is you’ve got to put down social media and things that are filling, peppering your brain. You have to get still so that you can hear God’s voice.”
God can use media platforms to speak to someone, Kelly said, but “the first place that we hear God’s voice is in prayer, in his word and through the sacraments. You do not need a cell phone to know God’s will for you.”
“The desert … is all about freedom, freedom to serve, and clearing out the noise so you can hear clearly the voice of God. And boy, do we need that. The cacophony, that’s our culture. We need our desert time.”
Even brief times of quiet are helpful, Father Czerniak said. “If we believe Jesus is alive and present in our lives, we can meet him here and now, in every moment.”
Prayer can be broken down into three parts, according to Father Czerniak. The first is a greeting, in which God is given full attention. Second, a person shares with God. That could be about experiences, life, what matters most. Third are “words of promise,” which could be asking for graces, giving thanks, resolving to do something, or staying silent and listening to God.
Praying those three parts could take as little as 30 seconds, he said.
“It’s a beautiful prayer that builds a relationship with God, the most important thing for a spiritual life,” he said.
During Lent, he said, he tries to pay more attention to personal prayer, and that includes making time for prayerful walks.
Kelly recommends praying the Chaplet of the Holy Wounds of Jesus, a devotion he revealed to Sister Mary Martha Chambon more than a century ago. Kelly said she’s prayed the prayers as part of the Stations of the Cross, replacing the traditional prayers of that devotion. The chaplet, Kelly said, is “so beautiful and so simple.”
People often want to “give something up” for Lent. “And that’s wonderful,” Kelly said.
She said she likes to remind them that mortifications should be accompanied with some type of receiving. And those efforts often involve the other pillars of Lent: prayer and almsgiving.
“So I don’t just give up a lunch or something just to give up lunch and white-knuckle my way through it,” she said. “I want to fill that time. I might spend that time praying or in service.”
When she and a friend would fast occasionally for an intention, the friend would go “to my house on our fasting days at lunchtime and we would pray and read Scripture together. So we were giving up this one thing, but we were also filling ourselves more with God’s word.”
People can fast from things other than food. If people feel attached to social media or the internet, Father Czerniak said, they could step away and instead spend five or 10 minutes in silence, reading the Mass readings for the day or sipping tea or coffee, aware of God’s presence with them.
“Any kind of detachment equals freedom,” Kelly said. “So really Lent is about God wanting to give us more freedom, and that freedom then translates into a docility to serve him.”
“Every mortification, every kind of purification that God offers us is always because he wants us to be free.”
Time and attention can be the most important alms to give, Father Czerniak said.
At home, try to spend more time with loved ones, focus on enjoying their company and building relationships, he said. At work, help someone you don’t usually help. “Step up, take the initiative, and be good to others.”
Almsgiving could mean looking into the eyes of a homeless person begging on the street, asking his or her name and introducing yourself, Kelly said.
“Almsgiving, I think, is really about giving what you do have. If you don’t have a lot of money, give even just a little bit of your time, a little bit of your humanity. … That can be transformative.”
“There are lots of different ways to give alms,” she said. “It’s not all about money. There are so many people who are so lonely in this world, and there is no amount of money that can fix loneliness. … That requires time, attention and affection.”
Jesus revealed himself as a human so he “could touch us, look us in the eye, spend time with us, get to know our stories … to know our humanity.”
“And as important as it is to give money when you have resources, I think it’s far more valuable to spend time with someone who is lonely.”