The following is a modified excerpt from Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels.
Going out into the wilderness is just the opposite of entering into your inner room: there are open vistas and rough terrain instead of an enclosed, private space. In the wilderness, solitude is less about intimacy with God and more about spiritual awe and freedom. Going into the wilderness is also an act of vulnerability: there is danger from weather, snakes, scorpions, and other wild animals, or just in finding enough to eat and drink.
Jesus was probably seeking both awe and danger when he went out into the Judean wilderness for forty days before his public ministry. He went to pray in the freedom of solitude, and to be alone with God. He also went to test himself. Alone in the starkness and quiet of the desert, he must have wrestled with his deepest questions about his humanity and his divinity, and what it was that God was calling him to do. The desert took away all barriers between his soul and God’s wide gaze, which must have been thrilling but also quite strenuous.
There is a long tradition in scripture of faithful people going alone into the wilderness and encountering God, including Hagar, Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist, among others. The Israelites spent forty years as a people alone with God, out in the desert. Early Christians continued this tradition when untold numbers of men and women left society to live with God in the wilderness, especially in the deserts of Egypt but in places all around the Mediterranean, following in the footsteps of the first desert solitary, Antony the Great. These desert mothers and fathers discovered, as Jesus did, that both God and the Devil, or demons, wait for us in solitude of the desert.
We cannot help but feel vulnerable and exposed in the wilderness.
There is something about wilderness that draws prayer from us, whether in wonder, discernment, help, or lament. There is something about wild places that invites spiritual solitude; where, in spite of ourselves, as Charles de Foucauld says: “one empties completely the small house of one’s soul so as to leave all the room free for God alone.” We cannot help but feel vulnerable and exposed in the wilderness. It is a place for both awe and humility.
If Lent is a time for us to imitate Jesus’ forty days in the desert, then it should be less a time to suffer and endure and more a time to grow in this kind of wonder and vulnerability. Engaging in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not about punishment; they help us transcend ourselves—finding greater intimacy with God and greater clarity about who we are. These three practices are also disciplines of solitude, forms of self-denial or self-emptying to make more room in us for God. Prayer reveals our emotional and spiritual vulnerability; fasting reveals our physical and psychological vulnerability; almsgiving reveals our material and financial vulnerability. In the wilderness and on the cross, Jesus made himself vulnerable, too—even unto death.
Lent is a wilderness set in time. In it, whether or not we are living anywhere near a physical wilderness or in a wilderness time of life, we can choose to live starkly and mindfully, in a way set apart from the rest of the year and the rest of human society. Even if you do not leave your hometown during the entirety of Lent; like the psalmist, you can still “flee far away [and] lodge in the wilderness,” and there encounter God.