Through the wild desert

At one of our retreats behind the walls last month, a retreatant shared with us an interesting challenge he had experienced recently. He described it as a “funny paradox.”

The retreatant, Martin, had noticed a noticeable shift in his mindset over the past few months: he felt more relaxed, more at peace, and more joyful, despite the fact that his surroundings hadn’t changed. He told us about how the anger and hostility present on the housing units didn’t affect him as much, and how that detachment allowed him to focus on “more important things” like reading and prayer and meditation.

It got to a point, he said, that he almost became optimistic--about his pending trial date, about finishing out the rest of his time without issue, and about starting his new life when he got out.

But then things got worse on the housing unit. A few guys started targeting him for harassment and asking him sneering questions about his stress-free attitude. At this point in the story, he stopped, looked down at his hands, and frowned. After a few moments he looked up and with a snap of his fingers said, “It all vanished like that.” He couldn’t believe that he had made it so far internally only to be brought down again by those provocations. And the worst part was he felt it was unjust that his inner contentment had made him a target.

The contrast between the momentary peace he had felt and the harshness of daily life is something we all experience throughout our lives, in various ways. We think we have everything figured out, then some harsh reality crashes back in. But all of Martin’s progress and growth hadn’t evaporated -- he was just experiencing a “valley” after weeks of “mountains” -- a moment of challenge after a moment of peace.

In the Gospels, Jesus often confronts these highs and lows, those mountains and valleys.  He retreats to a secluded place to recharge, then ventures forth to preach or work miracles or confront his critics -- of which there were many! -- and the cycle repeats itself.

In last week’s Gospel reading (Mk 1:12-15), we see this theme in a particularly poignant way. After being baptized by John and told by God that “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus is “driven” into the desert. The other gospels describe Jesus as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” into the desert. While Jesus' baptism has had a powerful and profound effect on him -- what greater joy or peace could be felt than by hearing those words? -- the desert didn’t disappear and his challenges didn’t go away. But he was empowered to face those temptations and challenges with new strength and conviction.

In the desert, Jesus is tempted, surrounded by wild beasts, and ministered to by angels. Tempted. Surrounded by wildness. Ministered to by angels. He faces down the temptations of power and physical satisfaction and leaves the desert behind to begin his ministry, ushering in the “time of fulfillment.”

When we're strong, we don't sit idle. Inner strength and peace allows us to push ourselves, to grow, and to encounter the world in all its imperfection. And what Jesus heard the day of his baptism is true for all of us: We are all beloved sons and daughters of God.

We might not be able to bravely dismiss all of life’s temptations and challenges like He did, but our angels are always ministering to us. If we can make it through the wild desert--if we can love ourselves fully and walk in our own footsteps--we have the chance, each in our own small way, to inspire and experience peace, joy, and fulfillment.