One of the great ironies in life is that, too often, success brings more unhappiness, jealousy, and destructiveness than joy, blessing, and harmony into the world. Daily our newspapers carry the familiar headlines: Millionaire superstar arrested on drug charges. Movie star found dead of overdose. Star football player hasn’t talked to parents in 15 years. Baseball star jailed for spousal abuse. Pop idol arrested for drunken driving. Rock star dead of unknown causes at age 33. Those are the big headlines, but these things happen in our lives at another level. Our successes and achievements are often the cause of self-centredness, arrogance, jealousy, and destructiveness both inside ourselves and within our relationships.
Why? Why is that the things which should bring us happiness, admiration, and harmony, so often bring us the opposite? Are success, admiration, and money bad? No. All good things come from God, success and money included. What is bad is that, too often, these are attained before a person has been sufficiently prepared to handle them. Then they destroy rather than build up. In biblical terms, what happens is that someone enters the promised land before spending sufficient time in the desert.
A bit grandiose perhaps? Why throw a biblical cloak over something that can be more easily explained by immaturity, addiction, too much money, arrogance, being a prima madonna, having an inflated ego, and the pressures of success? Why dignify these with high biblical references? Because they so clearly illustrate the spiritual truth: Before possessing the promised land there must first be a time in the desert. What is meant by this? The desert, biblically and mystically, is not so much a physical place, a geography, as a place in the heart. The desert is that place where we go to face our demons, feel our smallness, be in a special intimacy with God, and prepare ourselves for the promised land.
The idea of the desert as a place of purification has deep biblical roots. The scriptures tell us that, before they could enter into the promised land, the Israelites had to first wander in the desert for forty years – letting themselves be led by God, undergoing many trials, and swallowing much impatience. A long period of uprooting and frustration preceded the prosperity of the promised land. This was God’s planning. Thus the desert came to be seen as the place that correctly shapes the heart and the idea developed that one should prepare oneself for major transitions by first spending some time in the desert. Initially this was taken quite literally and religious men and women looking for purification would often go off into some actual physical desert and stay there for a time. Jesus did this. After his baptism, he went off for “forty days” into the Sinai desert.
Later, as the scriptures developed, the concept of desert was de-literalized. It was taken to mean more a place in the heart than a place on a map and was understood to be a mystical thing: Before you are ready to fully and gratefully receive life, you have to first be readied by facing your own demons and this means going “into the desert”, namely, entering that place where you are most frightened, lonely, and threatened. “Every tear brings the messiah closer!” This was a refrain in Jewish apocalyptic literature and expressed the belief that a certain quota of tears had first to be shed before any true joy could inhabit us. A quota of suffering must precede any worthwhile happiness. They understood this mystically, not literally. In order to be filled by God one must first be emptied.
The desert does this for you. It empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there – silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to be have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.
In terms of an image, this is what the season of lent is meant to be, time in the desert to courageously face the chaos and the demons within us and to let God do battle with them through us. The result is that we are purified, made ready, so that the intoxicating joy of Easter might then serve to bind us more closely to God and each other rather than trigger in us the kind of things that land our name in a headline: Charged with drunk-drinking!