The early Church has many accounts of both men and women going off into the desert to take up hermit existences in order to be at one with God. They had realised that so much of their living had become extra baggage, and living according to Christ was meant to be simple.
Going into the desert or to a lonely spot continued to be popular throughout the centuries, especially during Lent. Here these holy desert dwellers learnt from their solitude what it meant to be followers of Christ. So wise many of these had become in applying the Gospel message to their lives that many flocked to the desert to learn from them. One of the great desert fathers was blessed Macarius who lived to the ripe age of ninety in 4th century. One piece of advice to enquirers was "If you die to the world and to yourself, you will begin to live with Christ."
The Gospel makes it clear that "to live with Christ" is to follow His example. Christ showed that His life was to do to the will of the Father, so that He and the Father are one. None can read the remarkable High Priestly Prayer offered up after the last meal Jesus shared with His disciples without being struck with this sense of oneness. That prayer is soon followed by crossing the Kidron, manifesting unequivocally that the Son of God has come not to do his will but that of His Father. What Christ practised and what was learnt by the desert dwellers was that oneness with God can only be achieved by self-abandonment.
A worthwhile Lenten project this year is a desert experience. It means making a deliberate attempt to seek our solitude in order to examine our lives and see what extra baggage we carry. If we are really serious, the Holy Spirit will soon enlighten us of the contents of that extra baggage. Amongst other things He will unmask those bits of soiled rags we carry about bearing the names of grudges, anger, self-pity, hatred, hostility, revenge and bitterness. He will reveal the heavy parcels of our self importance, our wanting to be in charge, our need for recognition and yes, even ideas of our godliness. He will too manifest the grotesque bundles of not wanting to be criticised, not wanting others to think poorly of us, and of not wanting to be left out. He will show those grubby parcels of our dependence on coffee, tea or other stimulant to start the day. He will also unveil tinsel packages of comfortable living and concern for life-long security. He will further expose neat packages containing the energy and time we spend about planning for the future. Above all He will disclose those screwed up letters that we have ignored, often from people in sickness, grief, pain or loneliness.
Such a desert experience should make us to see what an excessive load with which we burden our lives. The miracle is that we can drop the extra baggage immediately by repentance and resolve. A free life in the Spirit is awaiting, but of course not without temptations as even our desert dwellers discovered.
This life of self-abandonment upon the Lord is not achieved overnight it is a life's work. Gradually through grace our wills bend more in tune to the Lord's than to our own. Little by little we grow in abandoning our thoughts for the day, and learn to concentrate on "this is the day the Lord has made", and to pray enthusiastically for the Holy Spirit to possess, direct and teach us what is His will and then grace to do it. We look for the opportunities that God puts in our path for that day to show our love for Him and for our brothers and sisters.
A modern desert dweller, after a profound conversion, was Brother Charles de Fouchald. After a dissolute life he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became a Trappist monk in 1890. Desiring a more austere life he became the gardener for the Poor Clares in Nazareth in 1897. In their chapel he spent hours praying before the Blessed Sacrament, those hours undoubtedly preparing him for the priesthood. After being ordained in 1901 he ventured out to the Sahara to live the life of a hermit. Unlike his early predecessors, Bro. Charles kept in contact with the world. One way was through his correspondence. Through his letters, his own writings and the prayers and meditations he composed we learn much about "the absolute" in the soul's encounter with the Divine. That life manifested that the only true path to perfection is a life of complete abandonment to the Father. So among the prayers he composed for daily use is this one:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and all your creatures I wish no more than this, O Lord. I offer it to you with all my love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
The other way Bro. Charles stayed in this world although a hermit was his identification with the local area in Algeria. He learnt the language and cared for the needs of the tribes-people in a region torn apart by religious wars and political unrest. Indeed his own life ended as a victim of local religious wars when he was assassinated in 1916. He was deeply mourned by his people.
Inspired by the Rule he had written for nuns the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart was founded in Nazareth in 1933, and twelve years later its counterpart, the Little Brothers of Jesus was established under his rule for monks nearby. This double monastery in Nazareth calls to mind those first great double monasteries built in the Holy Land many, many years ago in the fourth century by the blessed and talented Paula and Jerome, and Rufinus and Melania.
In the sand and silence of the Sahara Charles De Fouchald discovered what it took to be a true disciple of Christ to abandon one's self into God's loving and merciful will. In each one of us too there is need for self-abandonment if we are to discern the will of God in our lives. That self-abandonment is made easier if we also follow Bro. Charles' other example, of spending much time praying before the Blessed Sacrament and simply be lost in adoration to our Blessed Saviour.
Let your soul hear that call to the desert this Lent to discover the unnecessary baggage we carry so that at Easter we may truly rise uncluttered and unburdened and with empty hands proclaim Christ as our Lord and God.