The spiritual challenge of the wilderness experience

Father John A. Kiley

The Diocesan Office for Religious sponsors a day of recollection for the congregations of sisters and brothers who staff the schools, nursing facilities, and parish ministries in the Diocese of Providence. Sister Elizabeth Castro, HSMP, coordinator for religious, invited me to deliver this year’s presentation and suggested the topic, “The Desert Experience.” An awesome task, I mused to myself. But, if I can talk to engaged couples about marriage without ever having been married, then I can bravely address religious about the desert experience in which I have never participated. During these seven weeks of Lent, the Quiet Corner will focus on my research (if not my experience) on the significance of the desert or wilderness experience that attracted pious souls even before St. Anthony of Egypt abandoned Mediterrean society for the sand dunes of North Africa.

The most celebrated desert experience was certainly that of Jesus Christ at the start of his public life. The Church wisely proclaims each year on the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel account of Christ’s forty days of prayer and fasting in the Judean wilderness, harassed by the devil. Consider St. Mark’s rather abrupt account: “Immediately the Spirit impelled Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, surrounded by animals and heavenly spirits, recalls the temptation offered also by Satan and also in the wild to our first parents. In Eden, Adam and Eve were given the option to be loyal to the heavenly Father, obeying God’s mandate concerning the Tree of the Knowledge, or to defy God’s mandate, setting themselves up as God, the arbiters of their own destiny. “You shall be like God,” was the devil’s tempting approach. Adam and Eve sadly renounced their relationship to God as Father, preferring independence to obedience.

Author Darrel L. Bock notes that Jesus’ wilderness ordeal is the direct opposite of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. While Adam and Eve had not fasted at all, Jesus lacks food for forty days. Adam and Eve freely roamed in paradise; Jesus is left isolated in a wilderness. While Adam and Eve were provided with every reason not to succumb, Jesus would be understandably susceptible to yielding. While Adam and Eve failed, Christ triumphs.

Jesus happily embraces his role as Son of God and places the Father’s Will, the Father’s plan, above his own aggrandizement. In being true to the Father, Jesus is actually being true to himself. He is, after all, the Son of the Father. Christ’s very nature is to reflect the Father, echo the Father, express the Father. Had Jesus defied God, he would have not only treated the Father with contempt, he would have been contemptuous of himself as Son.

In Eden’s garden and in Judea’s desert and in a hermit’s wilderness hut, there is really only one temptation. Satan entices men and women in every generation to lay aside their divinely destined role as children of God and to erect themselves in God’s stead on the altar of self-will and self-indulgence. The basic human temptation is the denial of God as Father and thus the denial of oneself as child of God. Adam and Eve tried to make themselves out to be God. They rejected God’s clear will for them, following their own whims to expulsion. Jesus Christ, quite the contrary, delighted in the Father’s Will and fully embraced his own Sonship

Perceiving, acknowledging and embracing the Fatherhood of God are the heart of the wilderness experience. The lengthier accounts of Christ’s temptations presented by Saints Matthew and Luke detail Christ’s struggle to come to human grips with the meaning of God as Father. Should Christ fully trust in God as Father and wait on God to provide for his needs or should Jesus turn some stones into bread for his own satisfaction? Should Jesus call God’s bluff and throw himself down from a high tower presuming a Fatherly rescue or should Jesus patiently wait on God’s Divine Fatherhood? Still again, should Jesus abandon the notion of God once and for all to worship Satan or should Jesus maintain belief in God as the center of his life?

The wilderness/desert experience is a challenge for passionate believers to wrestle with the deep significance of God’s Fatherhood in their personal lives. Old Testament prophets, third century recluses, medieval hermits, and modern solitaries have pondered the centrality (or lack thereof) of God the Father in their religious lives. Such is the stuff of the desert experience, the wilderness experience.