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Lessons in the Desert – Oasis of Grace

Refreshment awaits the weary – Laetare!

Yesterday was Laetare Sunday, roughly marking the halfway point of Lent.  Laetare meaning, Rejoice!

After all the dry desert images so far, this one gives us cause to Rejoice!   Raise your hands if you want to jump under this private little waterfall!

One of the lessons learned, hopefully so far, is that if we work at quieting our hearts and minds from busyness and worldly noise, and then orienting ourselves towards God, we can find an intimate oasis of Grace that is waiting to refresh us.  Often the moments of Grace come upon us as an unexpected surprise during periods of dryness in the spiritual life.

Even though getting to the waterfall will take a bit of work, after a hot and dry journey, it will be worth the effort for the water’s restorative properties.

Just like working to reach this intimate waterfall, God’s grace comes after we strip off excess baggage that we have been carrying.  Whether we remove ourselves from a bad social circle, unethical work, or for Catholics, free ourselves of personal sins through Confession, we will be showered (sometimes seemingly out of no where) with healing water if only we make that effort to reach out to God.

So, Rejoice, Jerusalem!   “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.” [Jn 7:37]

For this week’s visualization, make another effort to remove any extra, heavy, dingy baggage we still might be holding on to and then next time we take a shower, imagine standing under this waterfall on a hot day.  Then take it another step and imagine the waterfall as though it was Christ pouring out His mercy and forgiveness on a broken sinner.  Feel His cleansing and healing Grace reach deep into our soul through the refreshing water on our body, giving new strength for continuing our Lenten desert journey.

“See, a king will reign justly and princes will rule rightly…

They will be like streams of water in a dry country,

like the shade of a great rock in a parched land.”

[Isaiah 32:1-2]

Lessons in the Desert – Perseverance

This week’s desert image shows us the value of perseverance and commitment.

We’re almost coming up to the halfway point in Lent and we may be feeling weary depending on how focused we have been in practicing self-denial, prayer and almsgiving.  The growing pains from these disciplines are good because they prepare us for dealing with life’s real challenges.

Sometimes our challenges or crosses in life can feel like we are stuck on a never ending, steep rock face with no way to get off, nothing to grab hold of, and yet we are still called to persevere in our ascent.

I was amazed when I came across this fellow, looking like a tiny dot scaling a huge rock formation.  I couldn’t believe he was climbing with no ropes and that he was doing it for fun.  It was a sport to him.  He was committed to getting to the top and it was clear he was doing well so far, since he’s probably practiced many times before.

It would be good to adopt this climber’s attitude for Lent and in life.  When we find ourselves faced with a steep climb ahead of us, it’s important to cultivate a positive, open hearted attitude for what are we going to learn, how our weaknesses are going to be challenged, and what new wisdom, strengths, and self knowledge we are to gain.

If we persevere with God’s grace, like the climber, we’ll also experience the thrill of conquering our obstacles, and feel that much more ready to tackle even greater obstacles or suffering that God may allow to come our way. 

But that victory only comes if we are committed in our perseverance with the help of Grace.

For an exercise, the next time we take a long flight of stairs instead of an elevator, or jog up a hill instead of walking, we could make an interior visualization of striving upward (like the climber in the photo) through the pain of our Lenten disciplines, or life’s burdens, and reach up for God’s abundant Grace that He gives freely if only we ask for it.

 “Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proved

he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.”

[James 1:12]

Lessons in the Desert – Staying Focused

This week’s desert image reminds us that our Lenten journey is well under way.

The path has narrowed, almost like a tightrope, perfectly dividing the two very different landscapes on either side.  I remember being rather preoccupied with how it pulled my vision away from the track forward by constantly looking side to side and comparing.

This is not too different from the Lenten journey we have at hand.  It’s so easy for us to take our eyes off the goal and keep looking side to side, longing for all the things we’ve given up instead of keeping our eyes forward and fixed on the prize.  Sometimes we sound like the Egyptians pining after the onions and garlic they had while in slavery when the journey through the desert to the Promised Land became challenging.  [Num 11:5]  They missed the comforts they left behind, even if those comforts were while they were in slavery.

For our mediation this week we might consider visualizing walking on a path, such as one in this image, with the many distractions we face on either side and practice staying focused on the goal of union with Christ.

Exercising this visualization whenever we find ourselves walking and reciting the scripture below is a great way of helping produce the corresponding interior disposition like in the Dominican prayer practice we talked about last week.

Happy journeying and staying focused!

“I will ponder your precepts and consider your paths.

In your statutes I take delight; I will never forget your word.”

[PS 119:15-16]

Lessons in the Desert – Choosing to Cultivate Silence

Whether you’ve dived into your spiritual desert or have barely wet your feet this Lenten Season, here are some meditations that I hope will be of help (to you and me both!).  I’ll post a reflection with a new desert image each Monday for the next 5 weeks leading up to Holy Week, so check back each week or subscribe (in the top right corner) for email notifications to be sure you get them.

I realize that I started with a water themed figure of speech for a desert reflection, and that was intentional.  So often we think of the desert as a dry, barren wasteland where people can die of thirst.  Or, in other words, a place to avoid rather than a place to actually long for and look forward to jumping into with both feet so as to be refreshed and renewed.  The desert really is the ideal place to shed all excess baggage, both interior and exterior, and go on a quest to reorder our life and find the spiritual living water that brings us to authentic living.  Whether it’s learning how to rely on the basic necessities, so as to not be weighed down by unnecessary supplies, or simply to learn what those basic necessities are to begin with, the desert landscape offers us much to ponder in the spiritual life.

About 4 years ago I was in Las Vegas at a photographers conference (which in and of itself was not bad, just the setting was out of this world).  I so badly needed to get away from all the noise and crazy overstimulation of lights, constant slot machine sounds, and the thumping trance of Gaga’s Poker Face song that played over and over and over again, everywhere I went.  It was loud and nonstop and I was convinced that this must be what hell would feel like: no escape of the constant, draining, noise.  So, the day I rented a car and drove off to nearby Red Rock Canyon felt like an incredible release of freedom and peace.

Most of us don’t normally have the noise level of a Vegas casino hotel constantly ringing in our brain, but the old tale of the slowly boiling frog who doesn’t realize he’s boiling to death, because the heat was turned up ever so gradually, comes to mind.

The point being: noise creeps into our lives slowly and can increase so much to eventually overpower and drown out any pockets of silence.  Noise has become like a serious addiction to some, so much so that some people actually become uncomfortable or hate being in silent, stimulant free places.  Not only does noise drown out the ability for a person to think basic things, let alone contemplate the higher goods, but it drowns out the gentle voice of God who normally only speaks to us in profound stillness and silence.

Something I try to do each Lent is turn off all unnecessary sound, or background noise and try to cultivate as much silence as possible.  The first few days are always the worst and it’s a good reminder just how addictive noise can be.

In case you’ve never heard of it, I’d like to introduce you to the concept behind the Dominican Nine Ways of Prayer, that has some relevance here.  It’s a practice of using specific prayer postures, believing that the body’s exterior posture induces an interior corresponding disposition, (for example, a deep bow = humbling oneself). Walking, climbing, sitting, drinking, are all postures or physical activities we would do on a desert journey that help induce a corresponding spiritual reality of a journey towards God, such as reaching to grasp His Word, resting in His healing Spirit, drinking in His living water, bathing in His Sanctifying Grace.

By externally ridding ourselves of all non-essential extras for even a pocket of time, (distractions like phones, music, internet, tv, food, parties, toxic relationships…) we allow ourselves interiorly to be cleansed and more ready to distinguish between our true needs and false comforts.  No point in guessing, by the way, who would be invested in tripping us up with distractions in false comforts… [Mt 4:3]  Better always not to engage temptations or you’ll end up justifying something you didn’t intend to do.  One thing I’ve noticed so far is just how hard it’s been to give up even the smallest, simplest trifles!  It shows me just how spoiled and spiritually weak I really am and how much there is to learn on my desert journey.

This week’s image was the beginning of a path I took at Red Rock Canyon. 

I pause here to invite you to place yourself in front of that image with me and make a choice to leave behind all unnecessary baggage, worries, fears, anxieties and enter a spiritual desert for the next 5 weeks.  Imagine the busy, noisy, or cluttered life you are in and then imagine stepping out of that and diving wholeheartedly in the desert.  Try sensing how much lighter you’d feel to drop the dead weight of [insert your distractions] and enter the open space of the desert.   Take some time to do that visualization with the help of the posted image.

Then make a commitment to do whatever it takes to try and create large periods, or at least small pockets, of silence, (as best you can given your vocation or state in life), so as to be at home in that desert and learn to hear the silence.

The interesting thing about a desert is that you can almost hear its vast openness or its silence by how the air moves with the smallest breath of wind.  That is the spiritual muscle that we need to develop: to learn to love the silence so as to hear the breath of God that speaks gently to our hearts.  The Lenten desert journey is such a great time for that.

I’ll leave you this week with the following Scripture.  Read it gently while looking at the image and allow yourself to step into the scene, leaving the world behind to follow God’s voice into the wilderness.

“Therefore, I will allure her,

I will lead her into the desert

and speak to her heart.

From there I will give her the vineyards she had,

and the valley of Achor as a door of hope.

She shall respond there as in the days of her youth,

when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

[Hosea 2:16-17]


Since most of us live in a city or suburban sprawl, do feel free to share tips for your own ways to cultivate silence and enter a spiritual desert or comment on your experience with this reflection.  Happy journeying!

Here’s Mark Burnett and Roma Downey earlier this month at the National Shrine talking about their Son of God movie to be released today.

It appears to be a re-edit of the life of Christ segments from their TV series, The Bible, with some new scenes added for the movie version. I only saw a few of The Bible episodes last year and then saw the in depth Son of God promo they showed at the Shrine. While it’s really great to see biblical stories on TV and in theaters for mass consumption, and I applaud Burnett and Downey for wanting to tell the story of our salvation to the world through really accessible media, I just wish there was more accuracy in the actual telling of those stories.

Granted, most people won’t notice inaccuracies or the creative licenses used, given the general public’s overall minimal knowledge of Scripture and the Catholic Faith in particular.  So I can see how many would be truly moved by certain familiar scenes that bring to life Christ’s love and mercy.  But scenes like Mary screaming in pain during child birth, those pains which were a result of Original Sin (Gn 3:16, something she was not subject to since she’s been preserved from it), would make it harder to explain and understand the significance of the Immaculate Conception, for example, and her unique role in salvation history.  Or Ananias baptizing Saul in the name of Jesus only (and not with the Trinitarian formula: Father, Son and Holy Spirit specified by Christ himself in Mt 28:19), bothers me, especially as it makes these scenes misleading and certainly not conducive for teaching purposes or praying with in any true depth, because it conflicts with some core matters of doctrine, like how we are effectively washed of Original Sin and restored  to relationship with God.  So, while the movie could succeed in moving people emotionally with demonstrations of God’s love, I’m not convinced it would successfully show them how to respond to his love, the response being a necessary element for relationship.

Without critiquing the specifics of each concern I have with either of their productions for time reasons, since there are quite a few even from the little I’ve seen, I just want to make a note that there are enough errors and distortions that would make it difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend it, especially to those who have little to no understanding of the Bible and salvation history. They just wouldn’t be able to tease out what is accurately biblical and what is the producers’ interpretation, creative license or just plain watering down, my guess, in order to make it supposedly “more accessible”, i.e. marketable to all Christian denominations.

As a former teacher and catechist trainer, I would have loved to have used a movie like this for mediation or illustration purposes, but could see myself needing to often stop or edit very carefully so as not to create confusion and potentially end up defeating the purpose of using it as a resource in the first place. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be some really great usable parts that a savvy catechist can still tease out and use with great efficacy. It’s just that Catholics need to be aware these productions are not entirely accurate and need to be viewed with the Bible and even a Catechism not too far away.

Some creative license for dramatic effect used that I think did work really well was the scene where Judas flees the Last Supper and starts choking on the Eucharist, eventually spitting “Him” out with the Devil figure looking on as Satan had just entered his soul. It illustrates quite dramatically how one cannot serve two masters. Especially when a person decisively runs from God and towards evil, his loss of Sanctifying Grace can be quite palpable.  The dramatization of just how repugnant Christ becomes to those serving the Devil and how the state of despair that follows can be fatal, I thought was rather effectively done.  However, I’m not sure if that scene will now be cut out given all the recent chatter that Burnett and Downey seemingly caved to pressure to remove the devil character (or perhaps just his close-ups, we’ll see), because some thought he looked too much like the president.  Go figure.  I’ll resist commenting on what I think about that.

While I’m not sure if I’ll go see the movie, (mainly because these days I just don’t have too much time or energy for movies) if I did have time, I’d use it as an opportunity for Lenten reflection, letting it help me go deeper in what I already know about the Son of God, his love and mercy, my own sinfulness and need of reconciliation.

For those that go see it that are fairly new to the biblical accounts of Jesus, I’ll pray that it creates more desire for them to go to the source and read Sacred Scripture themselves, digging deeper behind the meaning of the words and the teachings we have, so they can truly respond to and receive God’s love, and not just have this movie be the last time they expose themselves to the great story of our salvation, in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”  Jn 10:10 

  • Tom W - February 28, 2014 - 1:49 pm

    Excellent analysis and attention to detail in your review! It is amazing how people want to inject creative license to change some very fundamental understandings contained within Sacred Scripture for the sake of the Hollywood effect.

  • Martha Fernández-Sardina - March 8, 2014 - 3:08 am

    Thank you for your post. You raise some legitimate concerns and make some keen observations, including your comment about the powerfully shocking scene of Judas leaving the Last Supper. I went to see the “Son of God” movie after I encountered the Son of God in Person at the Ash Wednesday Mass. I watched it as the Lenten Season began in my desire to focus my heart, mind, soul, and strength on the life and the love of Christ epitomized in His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

    As noted by you, “viewer beware.” As soon as the movie begins one notices a departure from the actual Scriptural accounts. It took me several minutes to recover from my shock at the re-write of one of the opening scenes: the call of St. Peter as he is cleaning his empty nets at the Sea of Galilee. This is such a pivotal biblical account (Luke 5), one of such tremendous significance among all New Testament accounts; a crucial passage for the soon-to-be Saint John Paul II, especially in Novo Millennio Ineunte; a biblical account one of immense importance to me as an evangelizer. I have written about it more than once and I regularly reflect on this powerful true story in my talks (;;;;

    Here and elsewhere, the producers and directors took liberties as they combined and modified various Gospel scenes. As you state, many people will not know the difference – and that is both a plus and a minus.

    Having said that, I do believe it still makes for a good movie-going experience, one that can draw people’s hearts and minds and wills to Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, and Savior of the world whom I am humbled and privileged to know personally and call my Lord and the Love of my life since age 15 (

    Let us pray the Son of God has a profound effect on all who view the movie.

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