If you look at a map of the Sinai peninsula, you might wonder what route could possibly have taken forty years for the people of Israel to navigate from Egypt to the Promised Land. Following in the footsteps of that paradigmatic journey, you might similarly wonder why a two minute conversation with the Tempter in the desert took Jesus forty days. There seems to be a chronic case of inefficiency in the biblical world. Why don’t they just get on with things? Why do things take so long? Where’s the sense of purpose and direction?
Yes, we do like a sense of purpose and ‘wasting time’ seems like a crime against life. But what if our desire for control and ‘productivity’ is, in fact, a problem rather than a virtue? It seems to me that the long periods of wandering in the featureless landscapes of the desert – though Sinai is very beautiful in its rugged barrenness – are designed precisely to take the wanderer beyond the level of what it is merely ‘interesting’ to the deeper place of growth and wholeness. We often have a tendency to over-value our likes and preferences, our ideas and opinions. While these have their place, it is a mistake to think that ‘I’ am simply the sum total of these characteristics. Our true self is something much less clearly defined, because our true self consists in our capacity for openness, compassion and attentiveness. The testing time of desert wandering, chosen or involuntary, can be a process whereby we learn how to loosen our grip on superficial things in favour of a simpler and stronger open-heartedness. This process can be long and occasionally painful if we are very attached to these superficial things, but it’s fundamentally an enlivening process. It is also one that does not require effort so much as patience and a willingness to bear with a degree of uncertainty or ‘unfinishedness’.
Meditation is one of the ways we can practice this disposition in a regular way and Lent affords an opportunity to recommit oneself to a life of deliberate wandering.