In the spiritual life, the desert experience is a time of preparation and deepening of our life with the Lord.
We can be helped to see what is going on by looking at the desert experiences of the Bible. Our Lord went through his own desert experience, the Chosen People went through theirs and the prophets theirs. St. John of the Cross speaks of the Dark Night of the Soul. Each went through a preparation for the next event that God was calling them to. Jesus went into the desert before he began his public life. The Chosen People went through the desert to the Promised Land and because they did not respond well it took 40 years. In most peoples experience, it does not have to be a prolonged period of time. It can even be seen in prayer groups and in the Renewal.
The first element that is most obvious in a desert experience is a lack of food and water--in a sense the "feel good" feelings. "I am not being fed at the prayer meeting." "Prayer is just a chore. I get nothing out of it." This is a real experience. But we need to see what is going on. Our spiritual life does not correspond accurately to our feelings. At times God withdraws the feelings to show us that they mean little. We can react as the Chosen People did by grumbling at God and at the leaders because they were hungry and thirsty. They could have come to Moses and simply said, "We are without food. Ask our God to provide us with food. We know that He can and that He will take care of us."(John 6:31)
When Satan tempts Jesus to turn rocks into bread, Jesus simply answers, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."(Matt 4:4) Our response, when the feelings are not there, is to continue praising God and reading the Scriptures. We must know that God is still present to us and is with us. When it seems that He is not talking to us, we need to reflect on the fact that we do not deserve the times He has talked to us and we have already been blessed even though we deserve to be ignored. In His silence, He still speaks to us. We are spiritually deaf and need our ears opened. We need to reflect on what He has said to us. Sometimes we are so caught up in the novelty that we ignore the substance. Are we absorbing in our heart and in our lives what God has told us? The Desert Experience God, our Father, has told us to sit down and think about it. We are in a spiritual time out.
Remember that the Chosen People were only in the desert for awhile when Moses sent spies into the Promised Land and they came back reporting that the land flowed with milk and honey. They also reported that the military might was stronger than the Chosen Peoples. Josue had no problem with the Canaanites strength because he said that God would be with the Israelites (Numbers 21:3) The others, though, decided that they were not ready to enter the Promised Land and ended up staying in the desert for forty years until that generation of cowards and faithless people died off (Numbers 14:33-35).
In the desert experience, we feel that we are dry, our prayers become rote, our prayer time seems empty. We should also warn those who are newly Baptized in the Spirit that it can happen to them. When the Holy Spirit, through a desert experience, is preparing us for something, maybe it is because we lack the faith to move on to what the Lord is calling us. It maybe that the Lord is preparing us through a desert experience--by testing and molding us--so we may be empowered to move forward stronger in our faith. At sometime in our walk with the Lord, we all go through these desert periods. When it happens, a reflection on the experience is helpful and continued prayer is a must.
John Murphy is a member of St. Gregory Church, San Mateo, on the SF Charismatic Renewal Executive Board, and teaches electronics at OICW in Menlo Park, California.
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