Believe it or not, I began my Lent this morning in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona. It is a beautiful spot, with flat desert plains stretching between tall, rugged mountains that punctuate the horizon in all directions. The dry, crisp air was fresh and clean this morning, and the only real sounds I heard as I left where I was staying were the eerie cries of coyotes as they made the last rounds of their nocturnal activities.
Many people think of deserts as being dry and lifeless expanses. This is far from the truth for deserts like the Sonoran. It is full of living things. In fact, there is an abundance of plants and birds and animals that make their home in the desert. But, even with these myriad forms of life, the desert is also a treacherous place. I thought about that yesterday morning as I watched a hot air balloon silently floating over the desert hills. While I at first considered it a peaceful scene, I soon began to wonder where in the world the balloon would be able to land without encountering a forest of majestic and well-armed Saguaro cactus, or some equally beautiful but treacherous desert plant or dangerous animal. After all, the plants and animals of the desert are equipped for survival in a harsh and unforgiving climate and often are armed with either penetrating thorns or debilitating venom. The casual visitor needs to be cautious when entering their world, and be well equipped with proper gear, navigation equipment and, of course, life-giving water.
My reflection on the dangers faced by casual balloonists and hikers then led me to consider the tragedy of the dozens of men, women and children – our brothers and sisters – who die of thirst or exposure each year as they try to make their way across that very desert expanse to escape poverty and despair and to find a new opportunity for sustenance and a better way of life for their families in the United States. Yes, the desert is filled with beauty, but it is also filled with challenges and dangers and even death.
In some ways, each of us is trying make a desert journey right where we are living – without traveling to Arizona or some other desert landscape. The deserts we are trying to cross might not be filled with the beauty and dangers of Saguaro cactus, Gila Monsters and lack of water, but they are nonetheless alluring and treacherous. The deserts that I am speaking of are those that we encounter each day in our contemporary culture. Pope Benedict XVI often has warned of the dangers of these deserts with their alluring materialism, consumerism and relativism. Whether we are in the monastery, or in university classrooms, or the work-a-day world, each of us is in some way trying to navigate these desert expanses. And while the materialism, consumerism and relativism of our cultural desert are very attractive and alluring, they also contain greater dangers than any thorn or venom that one might find in a physical desert, for the thorns and venom of these desert dangers attack not the body, but the soul.
For example, materialism surrounds us with wonderful things, even useful things. And yet, over time it can cause us to forget that there is an even greater spiritual reality that transcends the limitations of the material world we can perceive. Consumerism places within our reach many conveniences and pleasures. And yet, it can cause us to think that our happiness lies in the things that we possess, and eventually leads us to desire to possess more and more and more, only to experience ever greater dissatisfaction and disillusionment. And finally, relativism seduces us into thinking that there is no objective truth, and that we can define what is right and wrong for ourselves. Relativism leads us, in other words, to idolatry, and with time we become entrapped by what Pope Benedict refers to as the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Yes, each of us must journey through the desert landscape created by materialism, consumerism and relativism. We might for a while, like passengers in a hot air balloon, float peacefully above these dangers. But at some point we do have to land in this environment, and we must be well-prepared to navigate the dangers of such a vast and treacherous place.
The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to reassess and our readiness to journey through the dangers of the desert in which we live. In fact, through his own forty days of fasting in the desert, Jesus encountered and overcame the same temptations that we ourselves must encounter – temptations to materialism and consumerism and relativism. He was victorious over these temptations and now, with his words to guide us and with the gift of his own Body and Blood to nourish us and sustain us, we have what we need to avoid these dangers and to emerge from this world of temptation into the fullness of life that Jesus has one for us.
With our Lenten practice of abstinence and fasting, for example, we can detach ourselves from the empty promises of materialism. By giving up some form of food, or drink or even some favorite activity, our attention can be drawn beyond the limits of our material existence so that we might once again be attentive to the spiritual realities that are so essential to our lives. With our Lenten practice of almsgiving or acts of charity we can step beyond the seduction of consumerism. By being attentive to the material or emotional needs of others, we can reverse our addiction to having more and more, and find true satisfaction in giving of our selves to others. And through our Lenten practice of prayer, we turn our gaze once more to God and away from the idols of relativism that we create through our own self-wills, or vanity, or pride.
On this holy day of Ash Wednesday, we hear the trumpet of the Lord calling us to repent of our sinfulness and to turn once again to the God with prayer, with fasting and with hearts opened by love for others. In calling us to this time of renewal, the Lord instructs us not to do these things simply for show or to win the admiration of others, but rather with a sincere desire for conversion and renewal. Jesus calls us to follow not the empty allure and false promises of materialism, consumerism and relativism, but rather the life-giving way that he has forged through the desert before us.
And so, as we receive the sign of ashes to express our desire to turn to the Lord, may we reflect carefully on how we encounter the temptations and dangers of materialism, consumerism and relativism in our lives, so that our fasting and abstinence, our acts of charity and almsgiving, and our devotion to prayer, might help us to overcome these dangers and return to the Lord with renewed hearts, minds and spirits, and become true “ambassadors for Christ” in a world that needs the Truth of His Word.