Henry David Thoreau’s fame rests largely on his wilderness experience along the shores of Waldon Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Actually Thoreau’s cabin was less than a mile from the center of town and he sent his laundry home every week to be washed, dried, and folded. Thoreau was certainly not alone in history in plumbing the depths of solitude. The Quakers, pioneers in prison reform, lobbied to have prisoners placed in individual cells with only a Bible for companionship. The Friends hoped this wilderness/desert experience of pondering the Word of God would lead the incarcerated to inner repentance and renewal, hence the word “penitentiary.”
A much, much milder form of the wilderness/desert experience is proposed by some believers nowadays under the label, “The Benedict Option.” Western society has grown so wayward, so corrupt, so profoundly unChristian, that some, apparently including Pope Benedict, suggest creating a mini-wilderness in one’s own environment. Author Ron Dreher writes: “Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.” Apparently author Dreher has taken his own advice so seriously that he is no longer even a Catholic. He has indeed created his own unique wilderness/desert.
The wilderness or desert experience goes back certainly to Biblical times when Moses and Elias and Christ and even St. Paul solemnly encountered the Living God in seclusion and solitude. The Gospel passages introducing Lent, Christ’s temptations and Christi’s transfiguration, wisely invite the believer to enter into the desert and mountain top experiences of Jesus Christ as he discerns and proclaims what it means to be Son of God in human terms. In these wilderness experiences, Jesus is a mentor for all who seek the true meaning of God’s Fatherhood in each individual’s life.
The desert experience for the interested believer is first of all not a retreat experience. Retreats are generally occasions to focus on one’s self: Why am I so impatient; Why am I so distracted at prayer; Why do I still flirt with impious thoughts; Why am I not more charitable? Retreats, often conducted within a group, are times for confronting, learning and sharing about ourselves. Done with the help of God, of course. Nor is the desert experience the same as the Dark Night of the Soul that some privileged believers have endured as a means of spiritual purification. Deprived of all religious comfort and spiritual consolation, the soul must presume the goodness of God, the validity of God’s Providence, the truth of God’s Fatherhood. It is a daunting experience as reported.
The Biblical wilderness/desert experience, while quite engrossing, is a lot more encouraging. The desert experience is simply, well maybe not so simply but nonetheless, an opportunity to encounter God directly. Jacob twice experienced the nearness of God and gratefully named the place Bethel, House of God. Moses approached the Burning Bush asking: “Who are you, Lord?” Elias at the cave door sensed God in the “wee, small voice.” The newly converted St. Paul, even before going to Jerusalem, headed to Arabia (possibly to Sinai?) for a deep encounter with this God who had altered his life dramatically.
The desert experience is an opportunity directly to ponder God, to encounter God, to understand God. The desert experience is a positive experience perhaps best expressed in the expansive words of Psalm 139, which the New American Bible describes as a hymnic meditation on God’s omnipresence and omniscience. First, the psalmist is keenly aware of God’s all-knowing gaze (Ps 139:1–6), then the author salutes God’s presence in every part of the universe (Ps 139:7–12), and then the writer celebrates God’s control over the psalmist’s very self (Ps 139:13–16). The psalm throughout expresses wonder at the person of God. There is only one place hostile to God’s rule—wicked people (Ps 139:19-22). The psalmist prays to be removed from their company (Ps 139:23–24). The wilderness/desert experience is the ideal answer to this quest.