40 Days (Before)
When I was in college, most of my summers were spent living in my car. My friends and I would work as much as possible so as to earn enough money to live off for a few weeks. As soon as we had enough we would quit, only to begin another journey whose destination was unknown to us. The thrill of the open road and the promises they whispered to us were too much of a temptation. We surrendered every time.
The point of traveling, I thought, was not necessarily to see something new, but to experience something new. This experience, more than just an emotion, was meant to alter one’s worldview, and give new meaning to life.
When I entered the Franciscans I thought my traveling days were over, only to realize that in some way, they had just begun. For my first assignment after making temporary vows, I was assigned to be one of four friars on an experimental “mission team,” whose very purpose was to travel the world preaching the Gospel. Instead of jumping into my car, I was now boarding a plane, and similar to my experience in college, I often did not know where I was going.
In a few weeks I will embark on the longest journey of my life. I will not need a car or a plane; I will not need money or places to stay. I will not be preaching retreats or giving spiritual direction. Instead, I will be spending forty days alone in a hermitage.
In Christianity solitude has always been considered, not as an escape from reality, but as a journey into its very heart. After Christianity become legal in the fourth century, there was a group of Christians who feared that the legalization of their religion could water down their faith. Terrified at this notion, these men and women, known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, abandoned the comfort that a legalized religion brought, and entered the wild and unchartered land of the desert. Their goal, like all true solitaries, was not to escape life, but to live in direct contact with its source.
Those hermits did not create something new, but walked in ancient footsteps. St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, and even Our Lord, spent an extensive period of solitude in the desert. In fact, it was from this time in solitude that their ministry emerges. Even earlier, God told Israel through Hosea “I will allure her, and bring her in the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).
When God leads Israel out of Egypt into the desert she is confused, afraid and lost. Despite God’s nearness to her and his constant saving help, Israel did not believe the Lord their God, who went before them in the way to seek out a place to pitch their tents (Deuteronomy 1:32-33). Israel’s faith is childish. They only believe in what they see and cling to what they know. Since all Israel knows is slavery in Egypt that is all they can imagine their life to be. Perhaps the reason Israel spends not just forty days but forty years in the desert is because it took them that long to let go of their narrow and limited ways of thinking, before they could embrace the expansive vision God had planned for them.
About four years ago I spent two weeks in a hermitage in South Texas. For most of that time I was alone, without the comfort of friends, my community or a familiar landscape. When people asked me what I did during that time I responded, “I mostly listened.” What occurred in that listening is difficult to express in words. One way I have described those two weeks is by referring to it as a “second conversion” experience. In that desert, stripped of everything that was familiar, I met the living God whom I thought I already knew.
Shortly after my time in South Texas, I received the inspiration to spend 40 days in hermitage. Like Israel, I have struggled to know where God is leading me. After all, I belong to a very active religious community, in which the overwhelming majority is moving not towards the desert, but deeper into the city. Though I admire this work, the Spirit appears to be moving me in an opposite direction, causing me to ask, “God, is this really you and if so, what are you saying to me?”
As my time to enter the desert draws near, I wish I felt confident and unafraid. What I will encounter on this next journey I do not know. Yet in many ways, the “what” is the least important. One goes to the desert not for an experience, but to answer a call. This call has led me to the Red Sea, as the waters begin to open.
+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
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