Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
— Psalm 25:4-5
WHEN JESUS wandered into the wilderness, he must have surely had on his lips the words of this ancient psalm. Following his feet into a vast unknown, he chose a path of emptying solitude. He was compelled into it, “driven out” into it by the Spirit, the gospel of Mark says.
Perhaps to Jesus, the words took on a new three-dimensional meaning: your ways, your paths, and your truth. Perhaps he knew he would have to wait for their meaning. He might have considered each word as one would consider a stone. Turning it over in order to know the whole of it, and how it might stack into a whole psalm, like some ancient cairn.
It will lay your soul bare
You allure me, you draw me by an invisible
but powerful thread, into the wilderness,
into the desert, so that there you may speak to my heart.
— Jim Cotter, Waymarks
THE DESERT wilderness is a rocky place. An arid climate, it is known by its extremes. Hot by day and cold by night. Rainfall is scarce much of the year, but it may catch you unprepared and wash you off the face of this earth when it comes. It can present itself as blindingly austere, with its stark contrasts of sun-bleached cliffs against burning blue skies, or amaze the eye with palettes of stunning colors in rocks and flowers that spring up like grace. And then there are the infinite and indifferent shining stars in the night sky for which no words suffice.
Wander into the desert and it will lay your soul bare. You may even get lost, as we are reminded by the news so routinely that we rarely take notice. When I was a child, I had a friend whose father went out into the desert and was never seen or heard from again.
Others return changed, renewed, and by some strange math of reduction, committed to live a larger life. So what mysterious voice calls to us from the desert?
Perhaps the season of Lent — this one in particular, with its harsh realities and conditions, and like the desert, profoundly marked with extremes — is calling to us. Perhaps our answering it can offer life-enlarging change. Perhaps. However to know, but by finding out?
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses
like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches
the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours (Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, ed.)
Prayer before you go
God of the Desert,
we can journey confidently into Lent,
following Christ, who leads into the unknown.
We may resist the temptations that will come our way,
knowing it is your bread that we eat,
your world that we serve,
and you alone whom we worship. Amen.
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