By Veronica Szczygiel, Ph.D.
When I was in eighth grade, I almost suffered a heat stroke in Death Valley during a family road trip through the Southwest. Conditions on that day were particularly brutal, and thankfully a nearby country store stocked dry ice. I hugged a bag of it tightly to my body in our air-conditioned car until I felt normal again. So it simply astounded me to see a young man sitting shirtless atop a rock, enduring the full sun and heat that was almost deadly for me, for hours, meditating.
Originally, I thought he was eccentric, but now I realize that his method was not new. After all, Lent marks Jesus’ fasting and prayer for forty days in the desert.
Forty days! Clearly, Jesus chose to pray there for a reason. So, too, did many Biblical prophets, like Elijah, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. There was also a movement of early Christian monastics living in the Egyptian desert in the third century. There is something about the desert, then, that attracts people of faith.
During my trip to the Southwest, I experienced this attraction firsthand. Driving on an empty road, we stopped at a scenic overpass at the top of a plateau. The vibrantly colorful, naturally chiseled rock formations were breathtaking.
But what captivated me most was the piercing silence. No background noise — no cars honking, no voices, no music blasting — nothing. The stillness was palpable.
The longer I lingered in that silence, the more I never wanted to leave. No wonder meditating man sat for hours on his rock, even in the heat. No wonder Jesus, John, and the prophets prayed in the desert.
Truly, in such tangible silence, we could hear the voice of God.
I think it is important to engage in “desert prayer,” no matter where we are. In this modern age of digital distractions and polarizing news cycles that compete with God for our attention, we all could benefit from some time “in the desert.”
This may seem difficult in the city, but I think we can re-create the spirit of the desert by mimicking its stillness. I will try to do this as my Lenten goal for a few minutes each day, beginning with shutting down my laptop and cell phone so no calls, messages, or notifications can take me away from my desert. I may even wear noise-canceling headphones during prayer. For those of us living with family, we can invite them to this desert. Or, we can wait until everyone’s asleep, or arise before they all awake.
Creating a desert is twofold: making the time and space for prayer away from distractions, and also clearing your heart and mind to truly listen for the Lord. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much noise is around us, as long as our hearts are still, ready to receive Him.
What matters most is cultivating desert peace within ourselves. That way, in the silence of our hearts, we can hear God calling us.
Veronica Szczygiel, Ph.D. is the Assistant Director of Online Learning of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University.