Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Desert Experience in Mongolia

by Father Peter Turrone

“I am going to allure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart.” Hosea 2:16

The desert is an arid and lonely place. It is hostile to all forms of life. It requires a great deal of patience, suffering and sacrifice to survive. Few people are willing to live in the desert. In fact, the population density of the Gobi desert is 0.3/sq km compared to 195/sq km in Ulaanbaatar . Metaphorically, however, the desert refers to any place of retreat from everyday life. This can be either an ancient monastery, the mountains, the beach, a chapel, one’s own room, and, most especially, one’s heart.

Throughout the Old Testament, the desert is seen as a testing ground for God’s chosen ones. It is the place where each person is called to come face to face with his or her own truth in the presence of God. There is literally nothing else but us and God. Everything that lies hidden within our hearts will eventually manifest itself if given enough time. In the New Testament, the importance of the desert is once again underscored. Our Lord himself retreats into the desert to be tempted by the devil before beginning his public ministry . The desert becomes a testing ground for the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity himself. Furthermore, the Evangelists also record other incidences of Jesus retreating into the desert to remain in solitude and prayer with the Father .

The desert also occupies a central part in the early Christian spiritual tradition. The Desert ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ were those people who abandoned everything related to the world in order to draw into a deeper intimacy with God. The lessons they learned continue to be of value for each new generation of Christians because the wisdom they learned was given from above, and, moreover, emerged from having learned to live in solitude and silence.

Called to be Evangelized

Speaking to a missionary a few months back he had mentioned something very interesting. When he first learned of his destination to Mongolia he had thought that his main work was to evangelize the Mongolian people. While this will always hold true for each of us missionaries, the most surprising discovery for him was the fact that God wanted to first evangelize him in this land of mission.
In The Inner Voice, Father Henry Nouwen mentions something along these lines which bears repeating over and over again:

“The more you are called to speak for God’s love, the more you will need to deepen the knowledge of that love in your own heart. The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant”. (p. 35)
The question we are then faced with is to figure out how to go about entering into an authentic journey which goes beyond mere words.

Interior Evangelization 

There is an excellent book entitled L’evangelizzazione del profondo. This work is the fruit of several years of prayer and psychotherapeutic experiences of several people who were not afraid to enter into themselves and begin a process of self-discovery and healing. They took seriously St. Augustine’s observation that by really knowing ourselves we are better able to know God.

The opening line of the Introduction begins with a question. “Are we really evangelized right down to the depths of our being, in all of our components?” (p.11). Each one of us has our own personal history whose entirety is only known to God. We are born into an environment which, for good or bad, shapes our personality. Over time, we either make choices, or have them made for us, which has a further impact on our identity. For the most part, each of us comes out unscathed, at least on the exterior. However, each one of us carries one or more wounds resulting from others, or from those we have inflicted upon ourselves through sin.

Each of us passes through various stages of life that are common to all, although our past will influence how we are able to cope with these transitions. These transitions include leaving home, beginning a new career, being destined to a particular mission, being diagnosed with an illness, growing old etc. What is crucial here is that these bio-psycho-social milestones unmasks our personality structure and, more importantly, how we understand and relate to God. They can often present themselves are “crises” or difficulties. What is remarkable about them is that they are given to us by God as opportunities for human and spiritual growth.

It is important to recognize that being aware of what lies hidden within ourselves requires solitude and silence. If we spend more time on the internet or in superficial conversations than in prayer and contemplation (which does not mean living in the chapel day and night) we will remain at a superficial level of existence. This is not meant to be an exercise in self-absorption but as a means to draw closer to the Lord, and moreover, to be more compassionate towards our neighbor. In this regard, knowing our weaknesses and strengths is still not enough to mature. We have to accept them too otherwise we will be slaves to them or project them unto other people. If, however, we recognize and accept our identity in its totality, we are more likely to advance humanly and spiritually. We are more likely to live in relative peace with ourselves, God and other.

This process requires a free decision to open ourselves to God. When we are caught up with many activities on a regular basis without being grounded in solitude and silence we might find ourselves becoming further removed from our core. For some people, they cannot stand silence and solitude because their whole identity is based on their work or relations with others. Being alone feels like being with a stranger. Moreover, many men often become sick with cancer and depression immediately after retirement. Their whole life was spent building their identity on what they did instead of on who they are .

For us here in Mongolia, we find ourselves in an unique situation. It is difficult to understand the culture and the language. We may be used to a certain style of mission which is not feasible here. We may find ourselves in a sort of desert. We are down to the essentials.

However, God was always calling us to enter into a deeper more authentic intimacy with him by virtue of our religious consecration (and ordination), however, we are now ‘forced’ to enter into it. Yet, we need to want to enter into it. Jesus is helpless in front of our freedom. He knocks at the door. We have to let him into our hearts. We need to be able to want God to empty us of all the idols and masks we have developed over time so as to be transformed into “new” men and women .

The struggle for holiness occurs within the privacy of the soul and we will not be aware of this without a certain measure of solitude and silence. When we are driving a car and want to give full attention to something up ahead we always lower or turn off the music. If we want to pay attention to what our hearts and God are telling us we need to do the same. This is why solitude and silence are essential to self-awareness and spiritual growth. God does not shout, He whispers.


An essential element of the desert is silence. The only noise we often hear is that produced by the wind. This is good because we are likely to become more self-aware. It is usually in these circumstances that all of the inner noise within us begins to emerge. We become more conscious of our thoughts, basic drives and feelings. The Desert Fathers often wrote of their experiences with the devil. While some of the devils they fought with were real rebellious evil spirits that sought to ruin them, there are also those ‘devils’ which were personifications of interior negative sentiments and thoughts.

While many of those at the beginning of their spiritual journey often have a romantic view of silence, we know that it can be rather heavy at times. We can think of the dramatic example of a prisoner who lives alone in his or her cell. This experience can lead to depression or despair if it is not grounded in God. It is only when we fill our silence with prayer and contemplation can we transform it into a spiritually profitable experience.

If we have the courage to live in silence we will eventually come face to face with our deeper self. It sounds frightening at times because we may not know who we are going to meet. We may have constructed an image of ourselves that is not real, or only partially real. There, we will find out the truth about the extent of our conversion. There we will find out how much we are in need of salvation.


The deeper we enter into ourselves, the deeper will be our experience of solitude . We go beyond our affective attachments with others which form a large part of our identity and enter into that part of ourselves where we stand alone. Again this can be a painful experience. In Arvaiheer, we see several cases of women remaining in abusive relationships for fear of living alone.

In reality, the experience of solitude can be very positive. We are Christians and know in faith that at baptism we were drawn into the life of the Holy Trinity and have become Tabernacles of the Most High. Jesus never leaves us alone. He is always present in us. Therefore, the experience of silence and solitude can give rise to joy and peace of heart because we discover that we are not alone, and that we are loved by God as we are and not as we think we would like to be. Jesus’ love for us in without measure. It is in this experience that hope is born and we even begin to live in right relationship with our neighbor. The other person is no longer sought out so as to fulfill an emotional need but to love for their own sake.

This is important for us working here in Mongolia, but also everywhere in the world, where we are called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. By allowing God to heal us and transform us we begin to become not only hopeful, but, as Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, become hope itself in a world where many of its citizens live without hope and are dominated by fear and cynicism.

Prayer as Mission In Mongolia

Prayer and liturgy are the centre of the Christian missionary life . During the Asian Assembly most of us participated in last year in South Korea, we were almost unanimous in stating that prayer is necessary for our own personal growth as consecrated men and women, and, moreover, it was a form of evangelization itself.

One example used by Father Paul Devreux would be useful here. He states that “if I begin to look at a painting in a museum, the painting will slowly begin to evoke the curiosity of others who eventually might stop to take a look themselves. The people will not stop to look at me, in fact, they may not even care whether or not I exist. However, they will stop to look at the cause of what is drawing so much attention and honour the painting itself” . The above example is an excellent metaphor for our daily Prayer of Adoration held each morning after the Eucharist in our ger church in the mission of Arvaiheer.

The central importance of prayer and contemplation in missionary life is evident when in 1927, Pope Pius XI declared Saint Therese of Liseux the patroness of missionaries. Even though she never left the cloister, she dedicated her entire existence to bringing all non-Christians before the Holy Trinity in prayer.

While we may not live in a cloister, we are all called to enter into an authentic journey of transfiguration in order to become holy missionaries. This does not mean that we are going to be without faults and stop sinning altogether, however, our main goal will be to let God work through us and with us for our own salvation and of those we serve.

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