A Good number of years ago I journeyed off to “Christ in the Desert Monastery” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to make a winter retreat. The monastery is nestled in beautiful red rock walls deep in the desert. The New Mexican landscape has an ominous aura. It invites — and threatens. Behind the mask of its raw features dangers lurk.
The desolate desert extracts a price from those seduced by its beauty. One suddenly understands how Jesus wrestled against temptations in the desert at the start of His public ministry. The monastery is aptly named.
To arrive at the monastery one has to travel off the main road through barren terrain for thirteen miles. When I arrived, it was shortly before sunset. The guestmaster was expecting me, greeted me warmly, and suggested I walk around the grounds before Evening Prayer.
While held in awe by the magnificent setting, I wandered further into the canyon toward what seemed to be its point of convergence. Soon I noticed a dark, obscure figure perched on a canyon ledge bathed in the red light of the fading sun. A cold chill from the desert rippled through me. I waved, but the figure tendered no reply. I continued walking into the canyon, carefully not looking up.
After about ten minutes, I headed back to the monastery. The sun had set and Evening Prayer was about to begin. I shot an uneasy glance toward the upper canyon wall, to see if I could catch a glimpse of the figure I had encountered on my way in. No one was there.
After prayer and a simple meal, while we were drying the dinner dishes, I told the guestmaster of my encounter with the figure on the canyon wall. Since I thought the figure must have been a monk, I asked the guestmaster to apologize to this pray-er for me. I was afraid my intrusion into his solitude had disturbed his meditation.
The guestmaster laughed, “That was no monk. It was a brujo.”
I had never heard that term before. I took it as a family name, like Jones or Smith, someone who lived nearby.
The guestmaster explained that brujos were demons, evil spirits who roamed the terrain looking for someone to devour. I was taken aback. His easy laugh made me think he was pulling my leg. I was mystified. Because he was carefree, I was more curious than scared. I was determined to see this brujo again before leaving the monastery.
Each evening before prayer, as the sunlight was setting brilliantly against the crimson rock, I strolled back into the canyon looking for my friend, the brujo. No one ever appeared. After two weeks my interest began to wane.
One early morning, after vigils, a visitor appeared at the guest quarters of the monastery. It was still dark so his appearance startled me. I was terrified that he might be the brujo. He introduced himself as a regular visitor from Santa Fe. He said he loved the monastery and often came out for Mass. He was enthralled, he said, by the stillness of the desert and the holiness of the monks’ lives.
This young visitor had only recently married. He recounted how he believed his solitary prayer in the desert enlivened the loving relationship he had with his wife. He was impressive. Following the Sunday Eucharist the young pilgrim went off hiking into the desert. He never returned.
When dusk settled in, I notified the monks that their Sunday visitor was nowhere to be found. The next morning the sheriff arrived and he organized a search party, complete with dogs and even a low-flying plane. On the third day of the search the frozen, wounded body of this desert wanderer was found at the back gate of the monastery, in the dip of the land where the canyon walls seemed to converge.
At the widow’s request, her husband was buried at the monastery. It was thought that he had fallen off a canyon ledge, broke some ribs and other bones in his legs and dragged himself as far as he could. Before receiving help, he froze to death in the sub-zero temperature of the night desert.
In the funeral homily, the prior made references to the enchantment of the desert, which invites one to enter into it to explore its reach. The desert’s beauty, he said, could cast a spell so that all sense of danger was forgotten. Everything that piques our interest, he said, however beautiful, also has the potential to harm us. There is often great danger in engaging what attracts us.
To enter the desert, he continued, is to enter an arena of battle. The demons of the desert cannot be taken lightly. Their charm entices us, but we must be wary and alert, lest that which holds out loveliness actually deliver death. The sense of the ominous that arises from the desert is apt.
When Jesus went out into the desert to prepare Himself for His public ministry, He went out to meet God in solitude and silence. He went to discover what really matters in life, when all is said and done. He entered into a long period of prayer to purify His perspective on the meaning of His life and on the will of His Father.
In going out to meet God, Jesus went to wrestle with the brujos of the desert. They were alluring. They wanted to captivate His heart. Temptations besiege us all.
The Bread That Satisfies
When He was hungry, the devil offered Jesus bread. Appetite is insatiable. The promise of having our material needs satisfied is a great allurement. In the desert, Jesus came to see that His appetite could never be satisfied. Not by bread alone do we live.
We can spend all our energy pursuing what we imagine will still our longings, yet in the end nothing will ever satisfy us. In coming to terms with our appetites, we slowly learn the limits of possessions and the infinity of our hungers. Many beautiful things in this world seduce us, then trap us in endless cycles of need which, though wondrous as the desert, bring us death.
The world is very good. That is the way God created it. If the things of this earth were not good, why would we ever want to share bread with the hungry or clothing with the naked? God made us to enjoy the pleasures of creation and to use them for our well-being.
The allurement of the world springs from the truth that all these wondrous objects please us well. They hold out a promise of happiness to us, because, to an extent, they do bring us contentment. The temptation we face is to limit ourselves to them. Seduced by beauty, we endow what is created with the features of the Creator. We come to regard possessions as ultimate satisfactions.
We are tempted to think that if one coat is good, two are better. If one meal nourishes, then two will surely satisfy. If a liquor or drug calms our anxiety, certainly a little more will ensure our peace. Fearful of losing our contentment with the goods of the earth, we tend to cling to them, and to give them more status than they have. As in the Gospel story, we load our possessions into barns, seeking to make our goods permanent inexhaustible. We can come to believe that by bread alone we live.
The Kingdoms of the Earth
Jesus was alone in the desert. The devil promised Him the company of others, and rule over them as well. The devil promised Him the company of others, and rule over them as well. In the desert Jesus came to realize that right relationships emerge from our essential solitude, even in the splendor of the kingdoms of the world. As Jesus was alone in the desert, He came to know that the true homage of His heart belongs to God alone.
Each of us is alone in our world. The experience of solitude, before it matures, expresses itself through pangs of loneliness. Loneliness reveals the void at the center of the human heart. The void, initially, seems like a curable wound. We tend to give homage to anyone who promises to fill our emptiness. But the wound will not heal. When loneliness finally gives way to a sense of solitude, the aloneness of life is blessed rather than cursed.
The devil of the desert offered Jesus the homage of all others, as a way to heal the incurable human wound. The pleasure in homage is the expectation that others will complete us, and satisfy our longings for a communion that will heal our loneliness and estrangement. We hurry into the wonders of companionship because they do satisfy a basic yearning for the presence of others.
God said in Genesis that it is not good for man to be alone. We are meant to be in communion. But others are not the Other. Human companionships tempt us to believe that they can alleviate the void in our hearts. In our initial craving for union with someone beyond ourselves, others appear in the form the Other, and become like gods to us. Earth becomes heaven, at least temporarily.
No human relationship, over time, is able to sustain the heart’s desire. When the void slowly opens again, and the glow of discovery begins to wane, we are tempted to use our power to control others so as to exact homage. We manipulate so as to be loved. We coerce so as to be respected if not loved. To cover our finitude, to forget our weakness, we hide behind fake strength. Whole nations do this, the Kingdoms of this world, which today are and tomorrow are not.
Jesus told the tempter that God alone deserves homage. God alone, in the aloneness of life, is the satisfaction of the heart’s desire. It is in reverencing the emptiness within us that we move from loneliness to solitude to communion. The life-giving splendor of companionship with others brings us death when we demand more from others than ever can be freely given. Others may attract us, promising to fill the void in our hearts, but God alone deserves our homage.
Risk as Security
Jesus was tempted by the brujo of the desert to seek security by surrendering Himself in faithful trust to the care of God’s angels. Security is a powerful attraction. In the desert, Jesus discovered that the fulfillment of God’s will often brings one to the brink of despair. Jesus’s ministry would bring Him into conflict with powerful social forces which would find in Him a threat to the existing order. His teachings seemed to devalue worldly authorities. His talk of a Higher Authority — “My Father” — was disorienting.
We sometimes believe the key to discovering life’s purpose is to find projects that assure us a secure position in the existing order. The maintenance of society’s good order is, of course, an essential obligation of citizens. The pursuit of the common good is a valuable motivation. The dream of harmony among all peoples is an attractive project. Yet persons are not bees in a hive or ants in an anthill. Each human being is called to respond to God’s will with unique talents and insights, and a human social order is necessarily, therefore, various and dynamic.
When we form our own opinions, and develop our own convictions about the reign of God, we sometimes put our status in the social order at risk. Established values must often, in that light, be challenged. Looking at worldly values in the light of God’s will is unsettling. One often wonders if one has the courage to say what one believes, knowing that so many others will only laugh at us. It is safer to be uncritical. Fear of ridicule drives many into silence. Security achieved that way allows us to evade the burden of personal responsibility.
All worthwhile values involve tremendous personal risk when we hold to them publicly. Jesus could have found security not only in the arms of angels, but also in the protection of religious law, by accepting things just as they were, without adding anything new.
In the desert Jesus saw afresh that the letter of the law, critical as it is for social cohesion, cannot adequately embrace the infinite mercy of God. The infinite heart of God cannot be reduced to precepts of good order. Precepts of good order cannot be evaded; “If you love me, keep my commandments.” But they do not exhaust all that God asks of us.
Jesus set Himself on the path of Jerusalem, the path that would lead to His death. The risk was enormous. Would He be abandoned in the end? He told us that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for others. Life becomes meaningful when we find in ourselves a willingness to die.
There is no other way to test purity of heart, which is to will God’s will. To say, Yes.
Meditation and Contemplation: Navigating the Desert
The beauty of the desert has profound appeal. So do those sunlit, glowing goods that satisfy hunger, secure homage, promise security. Something ominous in the desert warns us of lurking dangers. To worship a false god is to bring down destruction on ourselves.
Like Jesus in the desert we live life hoping to discover the goodness, truth and beauty of this creation. The works of God’s hand, appealing as they are, point us to something beyond their own limited ability to bring us to our destiny. The works of God’s hand promise life, but they also have the seeds of destruction within them if we cling to them. They are beautiful to behold but unless we are wary and vigilant, they can bring our hearts to death.
In the Catholic tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation have offered petitioners of a means of going beyond the beauties of creation to meet the Creator. In prayer, one slowly learns to look beyond the limited beauty of the work of God’s hands to the infinite Fire in the kiln whence it comes. Prayer helps us to be pure of heart so that we might see and experience Him Who makes creation to be, neither forsaking creation nor deifying it.
Traditional meditation asks of the pray-er that she engage — sometimes one by one — her senses; her imagination; her mind; and her will and direct them in the direction of God. By engaging our human faculties, we are able to aim the multiple facets and dimensions of our being toward God, one by one. Meditation helps us to weave together all of the diverse strands of our experience by relating them (for example) to the experiences of Jesus in the Gospel. In that way, we come to see what it is that God’s will asks of us, and feel God’s judgment (and love) upon us.
In the prayer of meditation, we might, for instance, image Jesus in the desert, hungry and thirsty after forty days and nights. We might see Him surrounded by the stones of the desert as they take on the mirage of bread, playing tricks on His senses. We might appreciate the rumblings of His stomach, which has not been given food for days on end. We might see His burned skin and parched lips, damaged by the scorching sun. Perhaps His tongue is swollen and His eyes sunken. Our meditation would ask us to recall our own experiences of hunger. We reflect on what it is we believe will satisfy the appetites that, in such a state, are so acute.
We might further use our imaginations to make connections with images with physically hungry people in our world today, the emaciated children of Somalia. We try to make their experience our experience. Our imagination might then prod our intellectual powers to make connections between the hunger of Jesus, our hunger, and the hunger of Somalia. In our prayer we could ask God to help us to see how all humans are one and yet individually distinct. Through the exercise of our will, we make certain resolutions to act in accord with our meditative prayer. We might imagine ourselves doing some corporal act of mercy, so as to celebrate a solidarity with all of God’s children.
Our meditation might continue by calling to mind the image of the banquet through which Jesus conveyed the presence of God’s reign. Employing our senses imaginatively, we taste the cooked lamb, figs, and honey, just as we experienced the hunger of the desert. As our meditation develops we touch a wide range of experiences and awaken compassion for those who suffer. We might see not only what can be accomplished in our own experience but also the limitations, frustrations and contradictions of a sinful, imperfect world.
It is possible to use our human faculties of imagination, sense, reason and will to see contemporary international and political movements in the searing light of eternity. We try to become aware of the presence of God, and to discern His will, humbled by our limitations and partial stand points. In the darkness we then experience, we place our trust in Him and try to be alert to signs of His will.
A similar exercise of meditation can be employed in the realms of homage and trust. One can for example, image the triumphant Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem on an ass. When He is Pilate’s prisoner, not Pilate His, we are invited to explore the qualities of true homage. Jesus is courteous, respectful; even while aware of being God of the universe. Likewise, we can meditate on Jesus in the garden, seeking to abandon Himself to His Father’s will. Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross bring one to the brink of discovering the interplay between risk and security in abandoning Himself to death.
When the pray-er pursues the multiple avenues of meditation as a means of encountering God and His people, and finally is left with the frustration of being an infinite creature in a finite world, it is then that a form of contemplation offers wordless, imageless solace. As petitioners who meditate on the workings of creation as we know it, we constantly bump into the limits of life. For the contemplative, however, the point is simplicity itself: surrender to the providence of God. In contemplation the pray-er accepts the darkness of the senses, the imagination, and the intellect, and quietly directs his will to God’s will. In contemplation, the pray-er surrenders to the Mystery that permeates us. The pray-er says, “Yes.”
The true contemplative learns to surrender all things to God. In contemplation there is nothing to grasp or reflect upon or figure out or do. This does not mean that the imagination, the senses, and reason and will are forever forsaken, as if they had not further role to play in our lives. Rather, in the experience of contemplation, the power of our human faculties goes dark, but we consent to God’s love anyway, in emptiness. Paradoxically, the act of contemplative surrender has a lasting impact on all that we think, sense, say and do. This surrender is not the kind that gives up. It is the surrender that gives over to God what we ourselves do not have the eyes to see or ears to hear or mind to grasp or heart to feel. Contemplation deepens our sense of awe to the point that we stand naked before the Creator, in an experience of our original innocence and emptiness. “Do with me as You will” is the wordless attitude.
Contemplative surrender is a defining moment. It conditions our perspective. Our consciousness is forever altered. Without contemplation we will never know our deepest hungers nor rejoice beyond the limits of our appetites. Without contemplation we will never know for Whom we are really made nor will we delight in the true homage of our hearts. Without contemplation we will never know the trust that comes from risking all so as to gain everything. The love of God demands more from us than we would know how to give. Contemplation gives us the courage to abandon all for the sake of all.
The world, like the desert, is full of allurements. The world and its allurements blossom with the goodness of God. They beckon us to come and participate in their beauty. The temptation is to make absolute what is simply meant to awaken us to a beauty beyond itself. Therein lies the possibility of having the world destroy our souls.
The ominous beauty of the desert calls us beyond itself and its demons, to a way of pursuing the call of the Love that made us, supports us, surrounds us.
Meditation is the methodical engagement of our sense, imagination, affections, intellect, and will in reflection on God’s Word, aspiring to be suffused with God’s life in thought, word, and notion. Contemplation is a silent, wordless communion (often in darkness or dryness) with the fiery Source of our being. Both are nourished by the desert.