Megan McKenna holds the Ph.D. in Liberation Theology and Scripture from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. A notable storyteller, Megan is also on the Board of Directors of Pax Christi, U.S.A.
IT is autumn, in between time caught between the fires of summer and the ices of winter — extremes. I live in the desert, the high-canyon desert of New Mexico. I am reminded of John the Baptist, the first of the desert fathers and mothers; this is his time and place. In June we celebrate his birth with readings from Isaiah and wonder about “who this child shall be” (Luke); in August we celebrated his martyrdom, beheaded after being thrown into a prison because of his purity of heart and his passion to be the Voice crying in the wilderness and preparing the way of the Lord to come.
But it is autumn, not Advent, and John resides in the desert, being prepared, being honed and polished like an arrow in the quiver of God, hidden and kept back for the moment. It is ordinary time, time in the desert, time for being formed and made, as only the desert can.
The desert is extraordinarily beautiful, yet harsh. It is a place of extremes: barrenness and lush verdant growth, blindingsearing heat and bone-chilling cold, darkness that is complete especially when there is no moon and a sky devoid of color or shadow or kindness. It teems with life and appears to be isolate.
We are told in Luke’s gospel that the child John matured and grew strong in the Spirit while he was in the desert. Here John learned one thing: purity: single-mindedness, singleheartedness, passion; to be the Voice of God. He learned it along with all the other desert dwellers.
There is a plant in the desert that blooms just once in a hundred years — the century plant. There are night-blooming cacti that send forth their flowers only for one night, lost and given over only to the eyes of God. The desert explodes into color, smell and textures, covering the floor and walls of canyon lands with thousands of flowers, plants and bushes, but it lasts only about a week. It can come and go with only a few attentive souls to appreciate it and marvel at the extravagance and wildness of it all.
At night the desert stars seem like singular fires, close and intimate, falling and singing as they streak across the blueblack of the sky. They streak across your vision, startling, announcing, crying out wordlessly for notice, like an arrow set to a mark, hurtling with powers, set to pierce the heart. John, the man of the desert is like this, hidden in the quiver of God, held back.
Autumn is hunting season in New Mexico. For two weeks the only hunters allowed in the mountains and high canyons are those with bow and arrow. Long before the short span of the season, the arrows are polished, making them sharper and stronger. Each arrow is good for only one shot, one aim, one target. An enormous amount of power and strength is needed for pulling back the bow and sending the arrow towards the deer. It is set for the mark, to pierce skin, draw blood, cleave down to bone, enter deeply, tear through, and open a way. Life and death is at stake here. There is only one chance or the arrow is lost and the prey is gone.
This is John. This is the tradition of the desert dwellers, the mothers and fathers of our ancient tradition. They were sent into the desert, driven there by the spirit, to be tempted, to be tested, to be honed down and made transparent, to learn just one thing: the will and the heart of God. Jesus, too, will go into the desert, to face his own demons, to decide on how God’s kingdom will come and to discover, when all else is peeled away, who he is and how he is to reveal and become the presence of God on the earth.
This desert is the privileged place of revelation in the history of the Israelites. The people of God learn in their wanderings and their journey through the wastelands how to treasure freedom, how to worship one God alone, how to obey the law, and how to care for one another as the children of God who uses them to be the light to the nations. It is ordinary time, ordinary survival, ordinary days and nights, ordinary pursuits: hunger, sleep, dreams, walking, meeting others in the desert and continuing, enduring, being faithful to the Spirit within and one’s own soul as it is purified and made true.
John, the Voice, was prepared and then put in the bow and set for the heart of the world. He said just one thing: repent, prepare, stop, turn around, wake up. He’s coming. He’s here, close at hand, and I am not even worthy to stoop before him and untie his sandals. He must increase, and I must decrease. 1 am not and he is. Jesus was honed down to a single purity: I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the Son of Man, the suffering servant, the child of God, the incarnation of God, the awaited breath of hope and freedom. I am the promise. I am, and I revere my God, who is true and just and tenderhearted, and present where I am. Now the desert is in the person and presence of Jesus. Jesus is set for our hearts, for the heart of the world.
Our tradition is a long litany of those who learned the desert teaching in their life: how to say just one thing with their lives. For example, Daniel Berrigan: “Thou shalt not kill”; Dorothy Day: “I have come that they might have life and have it all the more abundantly” (and she heard it for all, the street people, the itinerants, the poor, the rift-raff); Etty Hillsum: “We must be balm for all wounds,” knowing already that she and her whole family would die, be murdered in the death camps because of hate and nationalism; Jean Donovan: “My heart is not so hard as to be able to forget the children. I’m going back to El Salvador because of the children”; Julia Esquival: “They say they have threatened us with death, but we are threatened with resurrection!”; Julia and Celine Ramos and their friends the Jesuits: “We are the poor, the gift to the Church to call it back to its initial love and discipleship.”
We are arrows set for a mark, set for the heart of the world. By our baptisms we are hidden with Christ in God, his quiver, until the time. Have we learned the desert disciplines? We are being polished, made sharp. What does my life say? Does it clearly say just one thing? Or do 1 need the message of John, calling me to repentance, to conversion, before I can call others to a change of heart, a truer stance, a word of hope?
We are the church set for the heart and transformation of the world. We are called, missioned: “As the Father has sent me, so now I send you!” We are the glory of God made manifest to the nations. Are we clear on what we say?
- — Are we the presence of the risen Lord in the world?
- — Are we the voice of the poor seeking to be heard in the wilderness?
- — Are we a cry for justice that will not be silenced?
- — Are we the compassion of a tender God on the wounds of those who suffer unjustly?
- — Are we an alternative to aggression, greed, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, racism, and upward mobility?
- — Are we a peace dividend every year, a favor for others from the Lord?
- — Are we pushing our privilege on behalf of the poor?
- — Are we a word of hope, a song of joy for those who need courage?
- — Are we caretakers of Mother the Earth and Father the Sky?
- — Are we the gatherers of the prisoner, the alien, the widow, the orphan, the single parent, the unborn, the illiterate, the unemployed, the cast off and the forgotten?
- — Are we home to all the wild creatures of the earth that need to be defended from ‘two-leggeds’?
It is ordinary time, time of discipline, learning to incorporate the incarnate in our flesh and blood and bone and relationships the good news, the presence of God in the world today. It is desert time, time for our hearts and souls to be fashioned of spirit and fire and night, and time for our bodies to catch up to our souls.
THE SCENT OF GOD
The American Indians talk about two kinds of rain: male and female. The male rain comes in spring: fast, hard, short-lived, pounding the hard earth. It comes just after planting to push the seeds deep into the ground and start the first thrust of growth for new plants. The female rain comes in late summer and early autumn: soft, gentle, hanging more in the air, visible in strings and necklaces of moisture, barely touching the ground before it evaporates, cooling the air and giving just enough moisture to the earth to bedew it and continue growth. The liquid silver necklaces spun and hung in strands of thin chains are fashioned after this female rain. But whenever the clouds come and the first spitting falls in the desert, everything runs for high ground, out of the ditches and arroyos, up the face of the canyon, because when the rain comes, it comes so fast upon the hard and parched ground that there is little or no way for it to penetrate. It flashes in floods and sends walls of water across every flat place, destroying and sweeping away everything in its path. After the rain the smells come out: the sage, cresote, mesquite, and saguaro.
The ground jumps out at you, catching your breath and filling your head with fragrances. Sometimes this seems like the scent, the smell of God. It is heady and sharp and full and sensuous. It is a good time to sniff out God.
Once a wanderer in the desert stumbles upon that smell, the yearning to breathe that odor never leaves. In the desert one learns to track the scent of God the way a hunter tracks his prey. It also conjures up the image of God the Hunter, God the Huntress, preying upon the one isolated and alone, the one attentive and wanting to be caught, the one hungering for single-heartedness. God lures the unsuspecting into the arms of community, of Trinity, never again to be alone or in dire need. It is one of the desert’s most hard-learned, death-defying, and killing disciplines.
There are stories told about desert-folk. One goes like this. Once upon a time there was a young novice who wanted to learn holiness and to see God. She came and inquired what had to be done. The answer was fastings, penances, long vigils, hospitality, daily work and prayer that was never ending. For years she dutifully applied herself to the routine, the patterns, becoming adept, but not feeling holy or seeing God. After long years she returned to the Abbot and asked why she wasn’t holy. The Abbot answered: “You can do nothing to make yourself holy. It’s like the sun rising each morning. What can you do to make the sun rise?” She unhesitantly said: “Nothing.” “You are right;” the Abbot answered. After a few moments, she had another question: “Then why if I can do nothing to become holy, do I do all these fasts, long prayers, vigils, work and penances?” The Abbot looked at her and smiled: “Because, my dear, at least when the sun comes, you will be awake and catch its first warmth and rays upon your face. ”
The wisdom of the desert is stark, simple, and learned in bits and pieces that take years and decades to incorporate into simple flesh and blood trying to love and serve pure Spirit. It is the wisdom of endurance as the other side of faithfulness, the wisdom of poverty as only needing one thing to survive with gracefulness — the overwhelming need to worship God. It is the wisdom of compassion. In our weakness is the tenderness others look for from us and want from us as our most lavish gift. It is the wisdom of passion directed to one thing: the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice, especially for the poor and those who suffer innocently. It is the wisdom of solidarity, of taking the whole world into one’s heart and mind and carrying it as the pearl of great price, knowing that it is useless to be saved if all the others are not saved as well. It is the wisdom of humility, of being like the earth, of being nonviolent and careful of the least of the creatures, of rock, tree, air and plant, beast and fish, befriended and used only for what they were meant for, since we are all related as brother and sister.
Even in the desert, the Indians honor those they kill, eat and fashion into clothing, medicine and shelter by prayer, penance, and thankfulness to the Great Spirit. We too are to be sacrificed for each other, given in love, fashioned and kept in the quiver of God, until our time.
And lastly, there are the stars in the desert. One can lie on the floor of the desert on a rock, or in a sleeping bag and play Druid, looking for falling stars, calling out the names of constellations, tracing with a finger and a faulty eye the line of the archer, the bear, the dipper, the others, knowing ignorance and gaping awe at the number, the track of the moon, the planets and the milky way, the galaxies, and the nebulas. There is a tradition among desert dwellers, story-tellers, prophets, angels, and children that stars don’t fall. They throw themselves down in honor of those who give themselves up for justice and love. Or God casts them forth, throws them out so another may live, or to signal what is coming, to be alerted like the star the magi followed. It points to what is already set in motion ‘arrowed.’ thrust forward.
John is our legacy, the desert is in our flesh and blood by tradition and baptism. We are set for the heart of the world, arrowed. We are mothers and fathers and children of the desert, called to learn its disciplines, to make holy ordinary time, to be prepared and fashioned in its extremes and soli tude and survival intensity. If we are ever to be put to bow, cast forth by the hand of God and streak across the world’s vision, we must mature and grow strong in the spirit and wait for the time of manifestation in the desert. It is luxury and blessing to dwell in one, a necessity for all of us to turn to the one within, in city and soul and track the scent of God there, or we shall be lost and the world will not know the one who comes to make the world bloom wildly and vividly forever.