"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Find your desert

Today's Gospel, Mark 1:12-15, begins: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days... Why? To prepare for his mission by emptying himself of all else. That is our Lenten paradigm as disciples.

As such, it is peculiarly appropriate for people in the developed countries today. We are glutted with all that appeals to the senses: images, food, various consumer goods, information, and noise. Especially noise. It's got to the point where I hate to shop or eat in restaurants because of the incessant music playing in the background: pop songs on the radio, jazz or classical at the classier places such as Panera Bread, or sometimes just canned Muzak. (I'm tempted to give up Chinese buffet for Lent because of the inescapable Chinese Muzak; but hey, I offer it up for the sake of the cheap, nutritious, and plentiful meals.) It's all so ubiquitous in the urban areas where most of us live that it sometimes seems to us that we cannot live without the surfeit. But sometimes we can and should. We must clear the spiritual clutter so as to make room for God to speak to us, maybe even change us. Otherwise we dissipate our spirit through it.

I learned yesterday from a co-worker that he hates silence. He always has to have the radio playing, no matter what he does—not anything soothing either, but hard rock or loud talk shows. Even when he sleeps, he says. It's awful, and it reminded of somebody with a similar problem: an old, homeless woman whom I took in temporarily several years ago and who turned out to be well-known to the police and social-services people in the county. She was quite mentally ill, living on illusions from the past; I knew that my feeble attempt at charity would eventually end poorly, and it did when she moved in a flea-ridden old poodle without my knowledge or consent and against the apartment complex's policy. But the worst thing about the affair was that she could not tolerate silence. She always had to be either talking or listening to the TV or the radio. She even slept with the TV on despite my protest that it disturbed my sleep. The terror of silence was apparently too much for her. And while the example of these two people may be extreme, I also think it's symptomatic of our culture. We glut ourselves with noise or other sensible distractions in order not to hear what's within—whether that's our own demons, the voice of God, or more likely both.

Most of the time, I love silence now. In it, I can hear what I need to. When I'm alone, the only time I dislike silence is when I'm doing a particularly boring task and need to keep stimulated. Then I turn on the radio or play an MP3 or CD. But maybe I should give even that up for Lent and just let myself be diminished by the boredom. It would be a way to do what Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, recommends in his homily for today: making a bit of desert within ourselves to repair to. I think I need to do that; for there are undoubtedly ways in which I'm not listening to God. If that were not so, I would not be a sinner.

But we are all sinners. So much more reason for everybody to find their own desert. Many don't even have to look, much less make one: for those in nursing homes, the bereaved, refugees, prisoners, the mentally ill, the involuntarily unemployed, and many others, the desert is already there. And I've been there before. If the desert is already there for you, ask the Spirit to pour the water of eternal life into you. I'm glad I did.
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