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Father Cantalamessa on Creating 'a Bit of Desert'

Lenten Commentary on This Sunday's Gospel Passage

ROME, MARCH 4, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is the translation of a commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, on the Gospel of the first Sunday of Lent.

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First Sunday of Lent (cycle B)
(Genesis 9:8-15; Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)

With Jesus in the Desert

Let us concentrate on the first phrase of the Gospel: "The Spirit drove Jesus to the desert." It contains an important appeal at the beginning of Lent. Jesus had just received the messianic investiture in the Jordan, to take the Good News to the poor, heal afflicted hearts, preach the Kingdom. But he is not in haste to do any of these things. On the contrary, obeying an impulse of the Holy Spirit, he withdraws to the desert where he remains for 40 days, fasting, praying, meditating and struggling. All this in profound solitude and silence.

There have been in history legions of men and women who have chosen to imitate Jesus in his withdrawal to the desert. In the East, beginning with St. Anthony Abbot, they withdrew to the deserts of Egypt or Palestine; in the West, where there was no deserts of sand, they withdrew to solitary places, remote mountains and valleys.

But the invitation to follow Jesus in the desert is addressed to all. Monks and hermits chose a site in the desert; we must at least choose a time in the desert. To spend some time in the desert means to empty ourselves and be immersed in silence, rediscover the way of our heart, remove ourselves from the exterior racket and pressures to come into contact with the most profound sources of our being.

Well lived, Lent is a kind of cure of the poisoning of the soul. In fact, there is not only the contamination of carbon monoxide; there is also acoustic and luminous contamination. We are all somewhat inebriated with noise and externals. Man sends his waves to the periphery of the solar system, but in the majority of cases ignores what is in his own heart. To escape, to relax, to amuse oneself -- are words that mean to come out of oneself, to remove oneself from reality.

There are "escape" shows (the TV provides them in avalanche), "escape" literature. They are called, significantly, fiction. We prefer to live in fiction than in reality. Today there is much talk of "aliens," but aliens or alienated we already are by our own doing in our own planet, without the need of others coming from outside.

Young people are the most exposed to this inebriation with noise. "Let heavier work be laid upon the men that they may labor at it," Pharaoh said to his taskmasters, "and not listen to the words of Moses and not think of breaking out of slavery" (Exodus 5:9). Today's "Pharaohs" say, in a more tacit but no less peremptory way: "Increase the racket over these young people, so that they will be reckless and not think, not decide on their own, but follow the fashion, buy what we want them to buy, and consume the products we tell them to."

What can we do? Being unable to go to the desert, we must create a bit of desert within ourselves. In this regard, St. Francis of Assisi gives us a practical suggestion. "We have," he said, "a hermitage always with us; wherever we go and whenever we wish it we can enclose ourselves in it as hermits. The hermitage is our body and the soul is the hermit within!" We can go into this "portable" hermitage without being seen by anyone, even while we are traveling on a very crowded bus. It all consists in knowing how to "go into ourselves" every now and then.

May the Spirit that "drove Jesus to the desert" lead us also, help us in the struggle against evil and prepare us to celebrate Easter renewed in the spirit!

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