The desert is where we have no resources of our own and are utterly dependent on him. It is where we are overwhelmed by his infinite mercy.
The desert deep within our soul is a difficult place to go, especially in these times and in this culture. It frightens us. We try to avoid it if we can. We can take care of ourselves, we think. But it is only in the desert we realize that we can’t, and that we need God. And when we accept that, an oasis of riches springs forth from that desert to nourish us.
Prayer, ultimately, is about conversion, our transformation in Christ, and that occurs when we become aware of God’s infinite willingness and ability to supply all that we lack. His mercy and love are greater than our sin and failure. But to know infinite goodness, we must first acknowledge what is limited and imperfect.
The desert provides this contrast, and it is where Jesus invites us in prayer. Consider the following Scripture passages and notice the theme that runs through and connects them:
Bread from Heaven
In the desert the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites told them: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”
Then the Lord said to Moses: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.” Moses said to Aaron: “Tell the whole Israelite community: Present yourselves before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.” When Aaron announced this to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the desert, and lo, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud!
The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God.”
In the evening quail came up and covered the camp. In the morning a dew lay all about the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground. On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” Moses told them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. The Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. He let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”
Exodus 16:2-4a, 9-15; Deut. 8:2a, 3
Led into the Desert
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”
Mt. 4: 1-4
'To a Deserted Place'
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on food from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.”
So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.
They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate of the loaves were five thousand men.
Mk 6: 30-44
What really strikes me about these passages is not only the care God provides for the Israelites in the desert, but the solidarity Jesus shares with all his people—including us. Just like the Israelites, he was led into the desert and tempted to turn away from it. Just like all of us, he gets hungry. After relying on the word of God as his source of strength, he then leads his followers into the desert to experience the same thing.
When he sees the crowd, he experiences gut-wrenching compassion for them as the Good Shepherd, and he begins to feed them, first with Wisdom—the word of God—then with bread.
There is a very clear connection with the journey the pilgrim people of God have made, and are making, through the wilderness to be fed the bread of life.
Michael Casey, in his book Fully Human, Fully Divine, has an interesting reflection on the passage from Mark:
It was literally a gut reaction for Jesus. It was as though Jesus absorbed into himself the chaos of the crowd and allowed it to generate within his own awareness the sharp anxiety and pain which they dimly experienced. Taking their condition on himself, he acted to reduce their confusion by clear and authoritative teaching which was simultaneously comforting and challenging. The important thing to note, however, is that Jesus did not see himself merely as a supplier of unmet bodily needs. His response was, rather, to open a relationship in which all that was his would be accessible to those who approached him. His solidarity with their pain led him to invite them to a solidarity with his connectedness to his heavenly Father.
Another point that comes across, particularly in the passage from Mark, is that of need. The apostles return to Jesus to report “all they had done and taught.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Good job!” Instead, he says, “Come into the desert with me.”
There, faced with the prospect of feeding 5,000 people, the apostles realize they can do nothing, or very little, on their own. There’s really a lesson in humility here—it is God who works wonders, and we can only experience them if we acknowledge that we can’t work them. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus tells his disciples. We need God.
The Word of God invites us to need him because as Casey says, he “has become part of human history. He is one with us in our suffering; we are one with him in journeying toward the Father, in the Spirit.”
What does this journey through the desert mean in terms of prayer? It means Jesus has been there. He knows what it’s like for each and every one of us. He knows what we each need, where we each hurt. But he can only provide it if we come to him in prayer and honestly acknowledge it, and let go of our self-reliance and fear.
Thomas Merton spoke of facing our own existential dread before we can know the joy and love of God—“where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.”
This is a holy hunger that only God can fully satisfy.
I like the way Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith puts it:
We cannot feel God’s voice thrilling through us unless we first become aware of the tomb-like emptiness within ourselves which provides the echo-chamber for the divine Word. In prayer we lose all and find all. It is the journey, food for the journey, and the journey’s end.