The Desert Experience
Only by turning to God can we be transformed
Bishop David J. Bonnar 0
When I was a seminarian living at the North American College in Rome, our formators used to speak about priestly formation as a “desert experience.” Even though we were nestled in one of the largest cities in the world with so much noise and traffic, there was something to be said about this imagery.
Formation at times can be a desolate experience as we dig deep within to know ourselves for the good of the Church. While we are part of a class and surrounded by a seminary community, we can feel so alone and barren, as if we are in the heart of a desert experience. The aloneness we feel can quickly become loneliness filled with temptation and trial. In some cases, our spiritual life can become as dry and soft as the desert sand. Thank God for spiritual directors and formation advisers who accompanied us through those challenging times.
For so many of us, there was a particular relief and joy when we walked out of the seminary for the last time. I was thrilled! Perhaps some of that elation was found in the fact that many of us thought we were finally leaving the desert and fleeing to lands flowing with milk and honey. But one of the instant discoveries that occurs after priesthood is that we never leave the desert.
In my case, God showed his sense of humor because I ended up returning to the seminary for five more years, serving as the rector. That experience convinced me that the desert experience continues throughout priesthood, with all its challenges and temptations. The work of formation never ends. While we may find ourselves living with multiple priests in a large community, the heat of the burning sand can be so real along with the strong desert winds that may push and pull us in all kinds of directions. And let’s not forget the piercing thorns of the cacti, which prick our hearts, leaving us wounded.
As a young bishop, I must confess that this desert experience persists even more. I find it manifests itself in the burden of responsibility. What I felt as a pastor has been compounded even more as a bishop. Leadership can be so lonely and isolating. I have no doubts that I am doing what God wants me to do and that I am where I am supposed to be. Nevertheless, the desert experience is still real and felt in the realm of leadership.
The holy season of Lent offers a particular comfort and strength for us in our journey through the desert experience for, you see, there is a sense in which during these 40 days we find ourselves not only in the desert with Jesus but with one another. Even though we may feel so alone, we are never alone. Jesus accompanies us. In addition, wherever we are, we are all members of the Body of Christ.
I believe that the invitation for all of us in these days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is to make sure that we are building our house not on sandy ground but on rocky ground. Jesus reminds us that the only house that can survive the torrents, the wind and the rains is the one built on solid ground.
Continuing priestly formation and, for that matter, sustained human growth is all about keeping the foundations strong and secure. Over time, cracks can occur that weaken the structure. Sometimes in our humanness we can become broken and even paralyzed. It takes time, resolve, humility and the help of others to keep digging deep within one’s life and to shore up the cracks.
As priests, we can never stop praying, reading or growing from a human and intellectual standpoint. Nor can we afford to isolate ourselves from our family and friends, especially when we feel most alone. We are never too old to have a spiritual director or trusted adviser. Moreover, we can ill afford to deny ourselves the gift of God’s mercy and the new beginning that comes with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Only when we turn to God can our deserts be transformed into rich green fields that yield abundant fruit for the good of the Kingdom. Don’t be afraid of the desert for it can be a gateway to new life.
BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.