Jesus strove in the wilderness forty days and nights. His beard matted, he was dirty, and – at least – appeared half crazed from hunger and thirst; demons danced in his periphery. So wild was he that the animals themselves treated him as one of them.
Angels guarded the path home and there Jesus remained – no bus to board, bike to mount. Until the time was complete, the work done.
To be sure, Jesus returned home to Galilee, but he was not the same man exiting the wilderness as he was entering it. The devil himself had sanded as stone Jesus’ sharper edges, temptation had molded him.
Even Jesus, even Jesus had to dig deeply to find his true self, discover his identity, his destiny. Even Jesus had to abandon himself in search of something greater. Now, Jesus belonged to God in a different way than he’d belonged to God before.
The wilderness changes you. In the wilderness, you must abandon yourself, lose yourself, yield yourself to God as spirit.
The investigator of all things religious, Jacob Needleman, tells the story of interviewing a bishop. After the interview, the two ate lunch together. During lunch, the bishop let his guard down.
The conversation turned, and Needleman began talking about the existence of eastern religious teaching in both Judaism and Christianity. At this subject, the bishop’s guard returned. He spoke nervously about trying to interject contemplative practice into his diocese. He sounded so nervous, in fact, that Needleman – uncomfortable at the bishop’s anxiety – blurted out sarcastically, “Well, I’ve always imagined you leaders of the church have a secret monastery someplace, where you go to refresh your inner lives under the direction of a wise spiritual guide.”
Instantaneously dropping his guard, the bishop leaned forward and asked, Where!? Where is it?
We all want to know. Where is the monastery – or more to the point, where is authentic Christianity? The Christianity that changed Peter and James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Christianity that lit hundreds and thousands of people on the inside, that, as Scripture says, turned the world upside down?
When I was in the Judean wilderness, our guide showed us just such a monastery – on a cliff, miles from us, in a gorge. You could not reach this monastery by bus or car. You could not reach it by bicycle. You could reach it only by hiking – hard, desert hiking.
Just like you reach the monastery of authentic Christianity not by fleeing the desert, but by climbing the cliffs, hiking – desert hiking. Searching the soul for truth, being searched as soul for truth.
Most of us try to flee the desert – then we wonder why we find ourselves there, for all our refusal to face truth – and then we try to flee it – and wonder why we are wandering in circles for forty years.
To be clear – I’m not talking about evils that befall you, bad things – deaths, car accidents, and the like. God does not orchestrate calamity or sickness.
But also to be clear – God is not nearly as afraid of our life in the wilderness as we are. Because the wilderness carves a person. Changes her. Forces him to take account, to consider himself. To become yourself more fully.
The choice we have when at the desert’s threshold is whether to fight the good fight, to engage, or to shrink and hide. Will we be reconciled to God? Will we be reconciled to one another? Will we grow with God? Will we grow with one another?
Our country has been traipsing through a desert aimlessly, and I keep wondering, what about reconciliation?