Just returned from an overnight camel safari in the Indian desert just in time for Fat Tuesday (but really, considering all the fireside roti I ate — and made! — last night, I think Fat Monday will suffice) and the eve of Lent. With my wide brimmed hat and the vast scenery and my neckerchief, I felt a bit like Karen Blixen. I have decided that the only things better than channeling Karen are 1) sleeping under sparkly clear stars and 2) peeing on a sand dune. I’ll post more in-depth about the safari (bodily functions excluded) later, but suffice it to say that this was one of the most breathtaking, enjoyable experiences of my life. Nothing like a desert to make you feel close to the earth in its most untouched form.
Karen is my idol.
During my stay in Mysore I read Henri Nouwen’s “The Way of The Heart” (more of my thoughts on the book here), in which Nouwen talks about ancient ‘desert fathers’ who retreated from civilization and into the desert in order to become closer to God. Over the past 24 hours, I began to understand these men a bit better.
Lent begins tomorrow, and I’ve had a tough time recently coming up with habits to give up (or adopt) to bring myself closer to God. I no longer see Lent as an excuse for a Catholic diet, and I’m therefore hoping to make a change that is both difficult and meaningful for me, emotionally and spiritually. I’m also traveling, with a constantly changing schedule, which makes daily plans and observaces a bit more complicated.
I think, though, that being in the desert was a nice precursor to Ash Wednesday. After all, the Lenten season reflects the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. My stay in the desert was a bit shorter, a bit more comfortable, and involved more food than that of the Son of God, but I still experienced it, if only for a few hours. I saw its vastness, felt the harshness of the sun and the wind whipping sand past my body. I felt closer to the earth. And feeling closer to the earth and the stars and the sky always makes me feel closer to God. All good things.
One of the friends I made when I was going through the process of RCIA was a guy named Dan who, instead of giving up something during Lent, gave classes in Guitar and Swing Dancing and anything else he had to offer. At Easter Mass, he put all of his earnings from these classes into the collection basket. And that was the first time that I really considered adding something beautiful to the world, rather than giving up sweets or fries, during lent. And let’s be honest: giving up refined sugar in India would be a travesty. So instead of abstaining from any sort of vice or tasty treat (and because I can’t think of something worthwhile to give up), I’m hoping to add habits to the next forty days that will increase the amount of good in the world and increase God’s presence in my daily life. Praying more (thankfully I bought some new prayer beads at the market in Jaipur), showing more kindness to strangers (including the pushy salesmen pouring out of streetside shops everywhere I turn), and finding ways to use my own gifts to better the lives of others.
I find the simplicity of desert life so appealing. Fewer decisions to make. Fewer distractions. More appreciation for the important things in life: fire. water. companionship. In The Way of The Heart, Nouwen wrote about how the absence of noise (both in the literal and figurative sense) in the desert allows us to retreat into our hearts and truly connect with God. And I think Lent is a beautiful time to do this: rather than look at it as an obligation or an excuse to diet (diets are stupid, after all), I hope we can all move towards thinking of this season as a joyful one: a way to deepen our faith, examine our conscience, and by ridding our lives of needless noise, grow closer to that which sustains our hearts and gives our lives meaning.
Happy Mardi Gras, everyone! I’m off to flash my Mala beads.