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“When the eyes have nothing left to cling to the essentials may appear.”

Lent 150On Saturday 13th February 2021, Michel Cartateguy - former Archbishop of Niamey, Niger - led a day of recollection with the theme; “a Sabbath day at the heart of the desert,” for the 17 SMA Fathers from 8 different countries who live together at MIM, (Maison International Missionnaire) in Lyon. It was a cold morning preceded by snow the previous day, the outside temperature was -6°c, but the chapel was warm. 

Moderately dressed for the weather, Michel in a black pair of trousers and a black short-sleeved sweater with a navy-blue shiny crucifix hanging on his chest invited his confreres to imitate Jesus in the desert whose “going to the desert was his way of life. If this was necessary for Jesus, then all the more is the reason, why now it is important for us,” he said.

Stop, look and come back

Mgr. MichelIn order to have work done proper tools are required”. In the same logic Bishop Michel invited the priests to have three important attitudes during this Lent; to “1 Stop, 2 Look and 3 Come-back”, citing Pope Francis’ homily on Ash Wednesday 2018. An invitation to Stop and focus on the essentials of life; to look at life and ask, is it on the right path?  If so all is good, but if not then there is need for conversion. And finally, to “come back to life” with Jesus and “walk with him again.”

The desert quite often has tough characteristics. It is “a degrading place of thirst, suffering, temptation, discouragement, and struggle for survival, but sometimes it can be transformed into a (place) time of spiritual renewal.” The retreat director told his confreres “when one chooses to go to the desert, it is no longer a place, it is no longer a space, a wasteland, a sea of sand, but a time of true solitude where ‘nothing’ becomes ‘all’ going for the essentials and living from the essentials.”

Why the desert?

Digging deeper for the reasons that took Jesus to the desert and why it is important today, the bishop emeritus outlined seven points that the SMA priests can emulate:

1.       Jesus really thirsted for solitude to be alone with his Father.

2.       This desert must be above all an experience of God in faith.

3.       There is need to tell the one you love, that you love and perhaps to hear that you are loved in return.

4.       The Gospels encourage people to seek not silence but the desert in order to find communion with God.

5.       We need to go to the desert simply to pray to the Father with Jesus.

6.       We need to pray with Jesus every day of our lives, and just as Jesus was going to the desert to give himself to a more intense prayer, we must also go there for the more personal prayer of contemplation, more interior in a certain solitude and silence.

7.      We are entitled to this desert moment when we place everything in the heart of Christ - strengths and weaknesses under the light of the Lord.

Prayer

MassBut for a desert experience to be fruitful, in the example of scripture, Michel invited his brothers to pray. “When you pray, enter your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place.” Mat 6: 6. The room is “where I feel at ease away from the looks of others…”; it is “where I am led to live within myself.” Quite often there are many distractions that are perceived, but “when the eyes have nothing left to cling to the essentials may appear,” and therefore my room as the desert will be the “place of my intimacy with the Lord.”

The SMA priests in Lyon have various responsibilities. Some of them are students and they are busy with studies. While closing the door appears to be a simple thing to do, Michel challenged the priests not only to close the doors of their rooms but “each one knows what we have to close this day. The laptop, the tablet, the work, (school books), the concerns that worry me… then each one is free to meet God in truth.”  He also said the time of the desert must also be the time of the Sabbath. Scripture points out that the Sabbath day is not a working day and “that is what I wish you today in the desert in order to devote your time to the Lord for “the Sabbath is made to honor the Lord God.” Dt 5:14 and Exodus 20:10/35:2. Those who honor their parents are promised long life, and those who keep the Sabbath holy will find their delight in the Lord. And that is the purpose of “the desert and this Sabbath,” Michel said. On the flip side, he added that “Jesus is sensitive to the prayer of the heart. But in our life in general it is this prayer that has least success.”

SeatedAs the priests took notes and some nod in agreement in a well-lit chapel, Michel said that “during this time of Lent, I wish and hope that we will discover with Jesus that the essence of prayer passes into the secret of hearts.” In order to drive the point home, he shares his personal experience in Africa and in particular in Niger, “having lived for 37 years in the Muslim world, I was marked by this world that prays… a world defined by prayer... and those who do not belong to this world are called “those who do not pray, which is a bit annoying for us”. The rhythm of the day is marked by prayer... 5 times a day, and it is “collective, public and well regulated…” showing that “man finds meaning only in the covenant of God”. In this experience, “… it was the personal prayer from heart to heart that seduced me” and “this permanence of prayer tells me that there are true men of God in Islam even if I do not have the same conception of prayer.”

The bishop emeritus encouraged his brothers to look at the attitude of Jesus over the next five Sundays during the period of Lent and added that “Prayer is a requirement of love.” - Borrowing from Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s formula for prayer: “To pray is to think of God by loving him” he said. “For there to be prayer it requires both thought and love”. He compared prayer to “a fight because it is of the order of love and abandonment to the other.”

And last but not least, “Your Father is there in a secret place.” The true solitude, the true secret of the praying person is not in the absconding of men but in the presence of God. Michel concluded by inviting the fathers to “make silence the place of God’s communication.”

                                                                                            By Dominic Wabwireh, SMA