More than we realize, landscapes shape the contours of our souls. The plains of eastern Colorado condition us to understand the sheer magnitude of our world, and our own smallness in the sight of God. The mountains of the Front Range engender the same. I can still remember the first time I stood on top of A Basin on a crystal clear day and could see forever. My heart soared at the pure beauty of what I saw, how I was nothing in comparison to the grandeur and immensity of what was before me. And I gave thanks to the Father realizing he had given me this as gift.
No one understood the power of the landscape to shape our souls more than Willa Cather, the American novelist of the early 20th-century. Cather herself was molded by her experience of America’s Great Plains. “When I strike the open plains, something happens,” she wrote. “I’m home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea—it’s the great passion of my life.”
Cather believed that deserts, especially, have a tremendous potential to shape their inhabitants. “The desert,” said Willa Cather, is “a blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here and there with deep purple shadows.” In Cather’s work, deserts are monotonous and imposing: they seem to defy reason, and overcome hope. For Cather, the desert can drive a man to madness—rendering his soul despairing, his reason blunted and undiscerning.
Pope Benedict XVI, has written a lot about deserts lately. Last week, as he opened the Year of Faith, the Holy Father said that contemporary culture is experiencing a “spiritual desertification.” We are living, he said, increasingly in “a void … a life or a world without God.”
The consequences of our spiritual desertification are evident. Reason has too often given way to irrational sentimentality. The soul has abandoned grandeur. Hope is increasingly a distant memory.
Recently, I visited with a person without hope. As we discussed the great perils our nation faces, I stated to him that if we continue on the path of abandoning God, our society and civilization would fall. He said with a shrug, “I suppose all civilizations and societies fall at some time, let’s just hope it is not during our life time.” In the desert of hopelessness and relativism, the future seems bleak.
And yet, the Holy Father is calling us into the desert of contemporary life. He is inviting us to enter the void we face. In fact, he has called the Year of Faith for that purpose.
“This,” he said last week, “is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics—as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission—but the Gospel and the faith of the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI believes that the hopelessness and relativism of our day can be overcome by the light of the Gospel, the light of faith. “[I]n the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism.” I believe this too. Jesus Christ is our hope! He is the Living Water, the wellspring of new, eternal and fruitful life. The Holy Father is inviting us to bring this water to the desert—this is the call of the Year of Faith—this is the new evangelization.
To bring Christ to the desert of today’s world, we must know him. We must commit ourselves to studying our faith, and knowing it. All of us need to prayerfully read the Catechism of the Catholic Church to more deeply know our faith. We must also know Christ through our prayer—our regular and frequent attendance at Mass and eucharistic adoration, the regular celebration of confession, and our meditation on sacred Scripture. To live the Year of Faith, we must know the content of our faith.
But knowing our faith is not enough. To proclaim it effectively, we must proclaim it with love. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts must burn within us. Christ is the Living Water and the desert thirsts. We must bring Christ in love—through our charity he is made present. If we proclaim Christ without charity, we have not proclaimed him. If we are charitable without Christ, we have not loved.
The spiritual desert of today’s world has shaped a people who are without hope, or the assurance of truth. Christ is our hope! He is our truth! In the Year of Faith we are called to bring Christ to the desert. Let us know him, abide in him and proclaim him with all that is necessary—the Gospel.