Why it’s Important to Enter the Desert: A Lenten Exercise

by Carl Nellis, Associate Editor

The reality is that the troubles we go through affect who we are. Nobody can be unchanged by living through difficult times. Therefore it is vital to affirm this truth: we are more than our trouble.
—Simon Stocks, Songs for Suffering

We have passed Ash Wednesday, when we bow under the solemn charge to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We look forward to a coming celebration of hope beyond wrecked time, redemption of suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

But we’re not there yet.

We are in the intervening time. Broken things have not yet been made whole. The dead have not yet been raised. We are in the desert for forty days.

The church models this time on the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, the time of trial he endured during his preparation for ministry. So to grapple with this period, we often turn to those passages that show us Jesus during this moment of challenge, but this isn’t the only place in scripture to which we can turn for a way to engage the desert places in our lives.

***

Songs for Suffering by Simon P. StocksThroughout his Songs for Suffering: Praying the Psalms in Times of Trouble, Simon Stocks addresses many ways in which the psalms of lament put words to the human experience of anguish and emptiness. During Lent we consider various aspects of human frailty, and the psalms of lament can help us in this effort—though, of course, interior desolation isn’t limited to assigned days on the calendar.

Songs for Suffering doesn’t offer any easy answers for the crises we experience. This isn’t a book about solving our trouble, as if such a thing were possible, but instead about how to survive the journey, how to continue to nourish an interior life in the midst of suffering. Written for those looking for a way to express the full measure of their pain and need, Songs for Suffering maps the spiritual wasteland that, at some point or another, all paths cross.

Toward the end of the book, Stocks offers readers the chance to meditate on their identity in the midst of suffering, to consider how close to our heart the desert’s dryness has crept. He writes,

“The roles that we have, our ambitions and dreams, the activities that nourish us: they all contribute to our sense of self, and they can all be affected by suffering. In some extreme cases, we may even feel dehumanized by our circumstances.” (117)

Lent is a time for searching out our human frailty. We press into the questions that arise in times of deprivation, and in particular we seek out who we are when the small urgencies of everyday life are laid aside. It is a time for reflection and self-examination, for a return to our deepest sense of self, a search for the well of our identity. We propose to enter a time of deprivation in order to become familiar with the desert way, so that we might discover where life-giving water can be found.

This discipline of self-denial often takes pride of place in our discussions of the Lenten season, but focusing on Lent as a time of self-denial is incomplete, although important. It is not a time of self-denial for its own sake, but an enactment of the via negativa, the way of denial, because it is only by this road that we can approach the truth and the life we want to embrace, beyond the routine satisfaction of our hunger and thirst, the satisfaction of our passions and pleasures. In Lent we enact the displacement of suffering that the psalms of lament can help us express.

***

Looking to the psalms of lament to address who we are in times of suffering, Stocks presents readers with many exercises that speak to questions of deep identity. I offer one exercise here for those brought to the place of desolation by their life circumstances and looking for a way to see more than the wasteland around them. I offer it also to those who come to a time of deprivation through following the seasons of the church.

I hope you find this a helpful exercise in walking through forty days in the desert.

The problems we live through do not have the last word. They tend to distract from the bigger picture, engrossing us in immediate concerns and distorting our perspective on life, but there is always far more to life than our immediate troubles, and I long to find ways to pray that help us to reconnect with the bigger picture, and in particular that help us to keep a balanced sense of our identity.

There will come a time when the pain we have lived through becomes integrated as a part of who we are, but without defining us fully. We will be someone who was bereaved—but there will be much more to us than that. We will be someone who had cancer—but there will be much more to us than that. We will be someone who was betrayed or abused—but there will be much more to us than that. We will be more than our trouble.

But perhaps for the moment, it might be helpful to consider the ways in which our troubles have affected us. These questions provide a means for doing that. Identifying the reality of our situation can be an important step in ensuring that our identity is allowed to go beyond it.

Knowing who I am in my troubles.

For each of the following prompts draw up two lists. First, think about how your suffering has affected you: what have you lost and what has changed? Second, think beyond that, and bring to mind those deep aspects of your identity that go beyond your suffering.

Your name

What does your name mean to you? What do you associate with it? Whom does it connect you with?

Your close relationships

Who has the strongest bonds with you? How were they formed? How will they develop in the future?

Your belonging

What groups are you a part of: ethnic, community, faith-based, work-based, social? How strongly do you feel a part of those groups? How important is your belonging to them to your sense of identity?

Your characteristics and abilities

What do you enjoy most in life—what makes you feel alive? How do other people perceive you? What are your strengths? What do you find most challenging?

Your hopes and ambitions

What would you want to be your legacy? How much does the future affect your present? What do you wish for?


Carl Nellis is associate editor with Hendrickson Publishers. He lives in historic Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he reviews new books in critical cultural studies and researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl’s work at carlnellis.wordpress.com.

Songs for Suffering by Simon P. StocksFor more information on Songs for Suffering by Simon Stocks, check out our website.

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