by Susan M. Merritt, RDC
Ash Wednesday, this Wednesday, is the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, the forty days (excluding Sundays) that are offered for prayer and fasting in preparation for the celebration of the great feast of Easter.
The word “Lent” means “springtime,” and the asceticism for which Lent calls evokes images of the desert in springtime. The desert is where God’s chosen people are said to have wandered for forty years in search of the Promised Land.
John the Baptist, the beloved follower of Jesus, is said to have been a desert dweller. Jesus himself, we are told, was fasting in the desert for forty days as he came to terms with his mission, going forward into the future.
Why the desert? The Old Testament prophet Hosea said, “The desert will lead you to your heart where I (God) will speak.”
I recently had the chance to “retreat into the desert,” in Tucson, Arizona (and in a safe place). Things that caught my attention were the pitch blackness of the night sky and the blinding light of midday. It seems clear, especially in winter, that there is little food and water to be found. It is warm in the daytime and very cold at night. Small creatures abound, and there is a sense that larger ones are lurking close by, while not visible.
Actually going out into a desert, on one’s own, takes faith, faith like that of the Foundress of the Sisters of the Divine Compassion who said, “You must have faith and more faith and still more faith.”
But once having journeyed into a “desert,” actual or metaphorical, our hearts have a chance to be honest and free. In the nineteenth century the Founder of the Sisters of the Divine Compassion said, “An honest heart is a great gift.”
It may be that Lent can be a chance, each year, to rediscover our honest hearts.