Last year, shortly after arriving back to Portugal, I had one of the most exciting and interesting conversations that I have had since living here. This conversation happened while sitting across from a friend at a local cafe. There is not much else that I enjoy more than good coffee and good conversation, especially when that conversation is spent catching up with a friend that I hadn't seen in over 10 months.
Now, about this conversation. Beyond the general life talk that took place, we talked about travel (which just so happens to be one of my most favorite topics to engage in). At one point, this friend started telling about a trip that she took to Barcelona. As an art student, she spoke of the grand and elaborate architecture of numerous buildings, especially some of the religious ones. At one point, I asked the question: “When you were looking at the architecture, for you, was it a spiritual experience or was it solely an appreciation for the art?” Her response gave way to a conversation about religious and spiritual matters.
I learned that in years past, she participated in a youth group based on the life of Saint Francis. Being generally unaware of the numerous saints and having no clue who this man was in particular, she explained to me that he was a man born into wealth but who devoted his life to poverty and simple living after having a profound experience with God. She went on to tell about how this youth group would take a camping trip once a year. It was during this trip that one day would be set aside and designated as a “desert day.” This is where the conversation got really interesting as she explained what this meant.
Her explanation was this: On this day, each youth would go away by themselves to read some portion of the Bible which would be accompanied by some kind of spiritual writing about the text or about a topic in general. They would read the material and spend time reflecting on what they had read.
To that point, I had never heard of anything like this within the Catholic church. But as I listened to her, I couldn’t hold back the smile that formed on my face. This was it. This is what we desire to communicate to those around us; a simple experience with the one true, living and ever-loving God of the Bible through a simple relationship with Jesus Christ. This “desert day” was the simple experience that my friend enjoyed the most about being a part of that youth group. It is intimacy with Jesus, and it is access to God because of Jesus. And the thing is, you don’t have to go to a building to have this experience. You don’t have to confess your sins to a priest or pray to a saint to have this experience. In fact, you don’t even have to designate a special day for it. Really, the formula for such an experience is quite simple: the Bible and prayer.
In reading the Bible, we can better understand exactly who Jesus is and what He has done for us, we can better understand the characteristics and nature of God, and we can better allow the Holy Spirit to transform our lives. In prayer, we can speak freely and directly to God because of what Jesus did.
I think too often people have a tendency to complicate things, as if complication gives validity and meaning. But faith is as simple as putting your trust and confidence in something. And faith in God is as simple as putting your trust and confidence in Jesus.
To further go along with the idea of being in a desert, I want to add this. A desert can be described as “a desolate, empty, or forsaken place”. In the Old Testament, we read about how after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites spent 40 years in such a place as this. 40 years of living isolated; 40 years of waking up to harsh living conditions. But I just love this quote from Matt Chandler (a pastor from the States) as he was recently speaking about the book of Exodus: "The wilderness in the Scripture is a place where people meet their God […] it’s in the wilderness that there is this shift from 'He makes the rules, He’s the boss, He tells me what to do’ to ‘He loves me, He’s for me, I love Him back’ […] it’s in the wilderness, it’s in the dark night of the soul that we learn the compassion and care of God for us.”
The beautiful reality is that during isolation and difficulty, we have the great opportunity to fully experience God through complete abandonment to Him. That's because during isolation and difficulty, we feel weakest and in weakness, we are better able to accept and receive the grace and love of God. (Just think about the countless people who claim no faith in anything, yet when difficulty come, they find themselves crying out to a greater power.) It is also during isolation and difficulty that we feel a need for hope. And the truth is, my friends, this hope is found in Jesus.