Fruitfulness in the Desert: A Lenten Reflection
Mar 8, 2022
Siobhan Latar, S.T.L.
For every one of us, there is a story told, and an untold story. There is the part of us that everyone sees, hears of, is exposed to, and the interior drama of our lives that few, if any, ever know. Especially in the age of social media, everyone has a life that is compartmentalized to varying degrees: a public life, and a private one. It’s a particularly modern phenomenon because it is writ large today, but the possibility for this dichotomy always existed. And what “makes the cut” for our “public” life is usually monumental moments that reflect some sort of accomplishment or success. We tend to have a hard time recognizing the value of things that do not give us immediate, significant, or lasting results. We have a hard time feeling that it’s worth any effort for something that lasts a moment, or only makes a small difference, or doesn’t show any fruit until years and years of effort and striving. It’s hard to acknowledge the worth of such things, and they often remain buried or hidden from the narratives we create for our lives.
Then there’s the fact that the Church, every year, when proposing a season of renewal, repentance, and purification, takes us into the desert. The dry, empty, silent wasteland, which, on the surface, appears remarkably like the last place to bear any fruit, or carry any benefit for our lives. I’ve been reflecting on the weight and paradox of this image, and wondering if, within it, there isn’t a corrective to our limited vision of life that is consistently tempted to equate value and success with the externally glamorous, brilliant, and obvious. What if - as the desert is proposed as the place of spiritual renewal - the dryest, emptiest years of our lives are also the periods that bear the most fruit?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to social heroes, saints, and other famous people. I think we tend to forget this, but the reality is none of them are exempt from these long periods of apparent sterility. I think it worth highlighting a number of these stories, because most of us do not live in the heyday glory-moments of public recognition and success, or of our deepest dreams and best projects being realized and bearing fruit. No, most of us spend quite a few dreary years in the “desert” period, wondering if our lives have any purpose or meaning at all. And the incredible thing is that we’re not alone.
Damien of Molokai
We know Damien as the hero of the lepers in Molokai, Hawaii, who accepted the superhuman task of bringing beauty, humanity, and spiritual companionship to the filth and despair of the leper colony. In the face of the immense challenge, darkness, inhumanity, and evil of a place like Molokai, this simple farmer’s son from Bavaria started by instructing musicians to provide music for the funerals. To bring beauty and dignity to death, as the first, small step to changing these sufferers' lives into something of immense dignity and beauty.
But what is the untold story of Damien’s life? It is the story of the long, tedious years of schooling and formation, of begging to be sent to the missions, and being rejected again and again. It is the story of the interior struggles he faced when he was sent to the leper colony for the first time and had to teach them how to be human again. It is the story of the darkest nights, when Damien crouched in front of the tabernacle because he couldn’t sleep, the darkness of the place so heavy upon him he literally wished he wasn’t even alive to feel it. This is the story of the days that Damien was so deep in his depression, he couldn’t stand the sight of the people he was serving: the days this farmer’s son from the other side of the world wondered what value his life had, spending literally every ounce of himself to clean the wounds of a handful of dying, disease-ridden human beings on an island in the middle of the sea. When his depression was deepest, when he could hardly drag himself out of bed and could find no worth or meaning to the work of his everyday life, Damien could not know that he would one day be recognized around the world as a hero, that he would be canonized a saint, and honored by the universal Church; that he would be an inspiration even to such people as the author Robert Louis Stevenson. He, of course, did not know anything of this.
Today, there are countless tellings of the story of Junipero's life, the apostle to California. You can find dozens of different books highlighting the dramatic adventures of his founding of the California missions: the battles he faced against the soldiers; his efforts in defense of the dignity of the Indians; the hundreds of miles he covered in the short years of the end of his life; and the testimonies left even today, dotted down the California coast. Some people look on him as a tyrant and a destroyer of the native culture. But the native peoples that knew him, loved him, and anyone reading his letters cannot deny the affection, care, and concern with which he lived among them, taught, and cared for them.
But what about the rest of his story? All that we know him for, all of those missions, were accomplished in his seventies, which, for most of us, is only the last few pages of our lives. What about the rest? His untold story is the decade he spent in administrative office work trying to keep peace in the beaurocratic world between the government and the Church, when all he had ever wanted to do was be a missionary and reach souls. It is the tale of his traveling halfway across the world to the mission territory of Mexico to spend thirty years in the classroom and the office, teaching other young friars how to do the work his heart had always wanted to do. This is the story of those long, dark nights when Junipero Serra knelt in the dimly lit, ornate Spanish chapel asking the Lord, “Why?” What was the purpose of his life? Why give him a burning desire to serve the native people and keep him stuck within the four walls of a classroom, year, after year, after year? He could not know, during those long, thirty years, that the last ten would be a real fulfillment of his dreams. Sitting at his professor’s desk in Spanish Mexico, he could never have guessed that he would be remembered through history as the founder of California.
We know Mother Teresa by the told story: the work of gargantuan proportions that she undertook, and the global figure she became for the world. But she served as a simple history and geography teacher at a prestigious girls’ high school for 19 years. Nineteen years! If you had spoken to Mother Teresa in the middle of those years of teaching, would she have had any sense of the task, the mission that lay ahead? Surely, before the Lord arrested her path in that train and called her to different work, she would never have dreamed that she would be anything more than a simple sister teaching in a girls’ high school for the rest of her life.
Perhaps my favorite is Alphonsus Rodriguez, the gatekeeper… who was always a gatekeeper. Unlike the others, who had drastic life-changes later in life, he never even had another task, another job. The reason we know who he is, is because of all the other saints who became saints and took on huge missions after spending quiet afternoons chatting in this humble man’s little room. To the efforts, the love, the quiet wisdom and encouragement of this simple gatekeeper, we owe Peter Claver, the savior of the Africans in Colombia, among countless others.
Maybe you’re living Mother Teresa’s teaching years. Maybe you are with Damien in the midst of his depression on an isolated island, far from recognizing any value in the life you are leading. Maybe you are stifled, with Junipero Serra, in the twenty-ninth year of teaching what you want to be living and watching your students go on to do what your heart longs to, or putting out the daily fires in a government office, feeling so far from making a difference in anything… Maybe you are Alphonsus, at the end of your life, wrestling with the fear of failure that you have accomplished nothing more than opening the door every day for visitors.
The Church recognizes the lives of the most diverse men and women particularly for our benefit: so that we can be reminded that the paths to happiness, to fulfillment, to a life in the fullness of Christ–that is, to sanctity— are as numerous as are human lives themselves. And that what appears to be wasted time, or useless work, or empty years are being worked by the Lord into something of value beyond our wildest dreams. Maybe we will never be recognized around the world, like Mother Teresa. Maybe, like Alphonsus, only those closest to us will ever see and know and be affected by the grace of our lives until centuries later, when those same people have touched other people, who have touched others. The point is, God never does just one thing. If we let Him, He can bring endless, abundant fruit from our simplest, apparently most mundane lives. Nothing, if we offer it to Him, is without fruit, both for others, and for our own salvation.
Of course, it is also possible that there are thousands of people we never hear of because they lived selfish, lonely, isolated lives, and did not allow themselves to live for anyone besides themselves. But the difference is not that these people mentioned here did amazing, or “valuable” things, but that they offered all that they did do to the One Who can work amazing things with the simplest material: the same One Who designed trees to come out of tiny, minuscule, apparently dead and hardened things that get buried in the ground and left lost in the earth for months, or years, before breaking open and struggling their long way up and out into the sunlight. Why did He go through all that trouble? Why create those big, majestic trees, to begin so slowly, so tiny? Maybe so that we would not lose sight of His ability to do the same in our lives.
Every year, we are given the opportunity to take a step back from the busyness, noise, and flashing, glamorous distractions on the surface of our lives and enter into the simplicity of the desert, with Israel, with Christ, to re-discover what is ultimate. And yes, the devil is in the desert too. Christ went there specifically to contend with him, and Christ won. He always wins, in all our deserts, whether in the annual one of Lent, or the ongoing one of years of our lives - if we let Him.
The witness of the lives of these companions I have mentioned are an immense consolation for those times when the years seem to drag on in waiting or empty plans with apparently no direction and fulfillment. If I look at these, and other friends, I am reminded that He is working something beautiful, something wonderful, right now, even if we never understand, or it is not seen until perhaps years after our deaths. And this realization restores the peace of my soul to rest in the hidden work of the seed in the earth: of Alphonsus at the gate, Mother Teresa in the classroom, Damien on the forgotten island, and Junipero Serra in the office in Mexico.