Sometimes the Desert Comes to Us

I spent Ash Wednesday with my sister in her darkened hospital room. I held her hand. She graciously laughed at my weak jokes. Sometimes we chatted with the nurse. Sometimes we sat in the stillness with only the beeps from the various monitors and the distant scuttle from the nurses’ station.

The expanse of the desert has never felt so close.

The first Sunday of Lent we are invited to journey with Jesus into the desert, to remember that we are dust—sacred and loved, but dust nonetheless. We are invited to move out of ourselves, to face our sinfulness, our limitedness, our powerlessness. We are called to sit with Jesus and face our own temptations. But at the beginning of this Lent I realize that sometimes there is no need to journey into the desert; the desert finds us. I sit now with my sister and with our entire family at the precipice, at that razor’s edge of mystery between life and death, where no amount of theologizing or intellectual, professor-like answers can help. When I let myself fully enter this experience, I feel my mind let go of to-do lists, ambitions, daily tasks. The love that can only be fully known in and through suffering moves into the cracks and crevices of my mind, heart, and body. There is a tightness in my chest that can only be described as a feeling of complete and utter loss of control. But, at the same time, never have I been more sure of where I am supposed to be, of who I am and how much I love.

This is not what was supposed to happen. And yet, what choice do I have? What choice do any of us have? This Lent is an invitation to let go of expectations. Letting go will free me to embrace the reality of my sister’s pain and suffering so I can love her fully right now. Deserts force us to face reality. Right now, the desert teaches me to let go of how I thought it was supposed to be.

This is what Jesus’ journey into the desert can teach us. Jesus refuses to let Satan set false expectations. He teaches us to reject and abandon the false expectations we place on ourselves, on others, on God. Jesus’ entire life is a yes to the fullness of reality of life. And this fullness cannot be experienced without leaning into the truth and reality of loss, of suffering, of death. It is the paradox of the Christian story. We see resurrection on the horizon, but we cannot rush ahead to that point. The only way to resurrection is through the desert. We have to let the desert teach us to see the stark reality of life and death so that we can love freely and fully.

Deserts come in all sorts of shapes and sizes of human experience. Right now, my desert is found in a darkened hospital room. It is the liminal space between life and death. We keep vigil and we live in hope. But the truth is, we do not know how it is going to go. I want to be anywhere else but there. At the same time there is nowhere else on earth I want to be. The temptation is to turn away and to run. The grace is to say yes, I am here.

God grant me the grace to stay in the desert for as long as it takes.