The notion of prayer and fasting is far from new. In fact, even though I am very interested in the role of both, prayer and fasting, in the life of Jesus, the reality is that both were being practised by others for many years before that. My initial idea of the ‘desert day’ was for myself and a few priests that I shared it with. It then expanded to something that might be beneficial to anyone in ministry. I am now going a further step and sharing it with the wider faith community of St. Matthew’s through these ‘rumblings’. I would be very interested in your feedback.
This all starts with the premise that we live in a crazy world, noisy and busy, and has a pace that is ever quickening. The other observation I would make is that there is not only a deep hunger in people for peace and tranquillity, but I believe there is actually something even deeper than that. Even though we may struggle to put words on what we mean, I think within all of us, is a desire to know that we belong to something bigger and more beautiful than our human experience. I think this is the pull within us to the transcendent. I believe this is the Holy Spirit within us turning us towards the divine, again I believe this is where we have come from and to where we return. This is God. This is God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I feel the need to spell this out because of the times in which we live. Increasingly people deny the existence of God whilst others say something like, ‘God, whoever he or she might be for you’!
In this melee and growing tension the three big casualties are: silence, time and a sense of the sacred. So many are actually afraid of silence, being addicted to the very minimum of ‘background noise.’ When it comes to time it seems that this is the scarcest commodity of all. We even speak of ‘quality time’, which suggests we know that so much of our time is not ‘quality’, in fact we know that much of the time we give to each other is snatched, measured and often distracted. In the mushrooming of techno-communications and the myriad of social media there is little left in the world that we hold sacred. It is in here that the deep hunger outlined above is most acute.
I believe that if we can develop the habit of the ‘desert day’ we will address this hunger in a very real way. My suggestion is that the desert day is something we priests commit to on a weekly basis and indeed not just priests but all those in ministry. I accept that a desert day in family life may well be unrealistic though perhaps once a month may be more manageable. I want at the outset to state clearly that a desert day is not a day off or a free day. In fact I would suggest that the desert day is in fact the most important ‘working day’ in the week. The desert day is actually the day that sets the tone of the rest of the week. It is the desert day that gives the rest of the week both its colour and rhythm.
So what precisely is the desert day? It is a day of silence. It is a day without the phone. It is a day of fasting. I do not necessarily argue, no food, but rather very light food. Lots of water. Little enough food to experience mild hunger. Certainly no consumption of food that would sap energy or induce drowsiness. It is a day of reading sacred scripture, especially the psalms and the gospels. No other reading. No music. If journaling is helpful it would be important to restrict it to an hour or two, otherwise it becomes a day of writing. Now, it should be evident at this stage that with all this silence, inactivity and overall slowing down and calmness there opens up a substantial space. This brings us to the whole point of the desert day. This de-cluttered state, this space, this silence is where we invite Jesus, the Risen Lord, into. The reason for the desert day is in fact to spend time alone with the Lord. At the heart of the desert day is prayer. Not, I hasten to add, saying prayers but rather a deep silent listening of the heart.
Were we to develop the habit of regular desert days we would quickly see enormous benefits in our lives. These benefits would include a deep inner peace, a better sense of self, better relationships and above all a real awareness of God’s presence in our lives and most of all an abiding sense of his unconditional and merciful love for us. Surely all that, at the very least, makes the desert day worth trying.