Lent is a time to remember we are desert people—called to risk following Jesus into his desert and our own. Deserts come in many guises: geographical and spiritual, searingly hot or witheringly cold, bathed in all-exposing light or swathed in impenetrable darkness. Whatever its character, the desert leaves you with little choice but to attend to the call to go deeper, to journey closer to the core of your being.
Last year I spent part of Lent in the deserts of southern California, and the lessons of the landscape came beating in: the badlands, so barren, unyielding, resistant to any kind of encounter and so much a part of my own heart. But between the rocks were the first glimpses of the wild flowers that would soon make the desert bloom. It reminded me of a chance meeting in the Sinai desert with a Bedouin wanderer who amazed us by taking a dry seed in the palm of his hand, spitting on it and inviting us to watch as it literally burst forth into green growth before our eyes. Lent is also an invitation to let that fresh new growth begin in our hearts.
By contrast, a more recent experience showed me that life, like that little seed, is not just a promise for the future but something we hold in the palm of our hands here and now, if only we could recognize and celebrate it. It happened in a small town in northern Canada. The invitation to visit this community took me completely by surprise, to say nothing of taking me to what felt, in the bleak dark of a winter night, like the middle of nowhere. The snow-filled streets seemed to rise out of the gloom as the aircraft touched down. In hindsight, I think the town was trying to tell me, even then, that it was incubating remarkable things, but at that first moment of my arrival it felt like a dark night and a desert landing.
The town lies at the intersection of the east-west and north-south highways connecting the Pacific coast to the prairies and the East, and the wilderness of the Yukon to the balmier clime of Vancouver. There you can stand at that physical crossroads and allow the world to unfold around you as if you were at the focal point of a Google map. The world that unfolds might seem pretty desolate to the casual observer. But what if you move inward instead, into the soul of this place, into your own soul and see what seeds might be waiting there, to bloom and bear fruit when the time is right?
I did not have to wait long for the opportunity to do just that. I soon discovered in this small town, at the meeting-point of so many possibilities, a vibrant ecumenical group of Christians with all shades of theology but just one passion: to follow where Jesus leads them, out into the world and closer to God and each other. I found myself in two places at once: in a diocese that is bigger than Germany and at the same time in the intimacy of a family home, in conversation with new friends around a coffee table at which Henri Nouwen once celebrated the Eucharist in this same room with these same people.
It was there that I heard about a very particular vision of reconciliation, the Returning to Spirit program. It makes authentic and compassionate space possible where Native American people, damaged by the experience of being forcibly taken from their families to the harsh regimes of some of the mission boarding schools, talk with representatives of the church organizations responsible for doing the harm. Together they can reflect deeply on their experience, meet one another in it and move beyond it. Heal-ing happens at the intersection of two raw experiences of pain, where the truth can be spoken and honestly heard. It is a visionary model for genuine reconciliation that will surely inspire healing in other areas of festering resentment and conflict. And it is all about returning to the true core of our being, where the spirit of God dwells, and honoring that spirit in each other. That same Lenten call re-echoes in our hearts every year at this time.
I cherish both these personal experiences of what at first appeared to be desert space, but where deeper reflection disclosed radical new growth. They are two different examples of the same truth: If you stand still and ask for the grace to put down a deeper root, God will not fail to surprise you with new possibilities. They are two different kinds of desert journey, back to the heart and true spirit of things, acknowledging the badlands and accepting God’s invitation to smell the flowers.