A Place in the Desert with Jesus
Friday, March 1st, 2013
Fr. Joseph Palmisano, SJ blesses his grandmother after his ordination as a priest.
The United Nations reports, as recently as 20 December 2010, that there are currently “39,461 refugees and asylum seekers … registered in Egypt … with school-age children (6-18 years of age) numbering at 9,956.” I am moved by the fact that one-third of the refugees are children and am reminded of Jesus’ own flight into Egypt. This story from the Gospel of Matthew, read during Christmastide, is related to our Lenten journey.
Jesus knew what it meant to be a refugee and I suspect that, through the parenting of Mary and Joseph, praying, fasting and almsgiving became a way of life for Jesus in Egypt. Praying for greater trust and sharing what one had with the other, was a form of giving and receiving of alms among the displaced themselves. It also served as a ‘school of the heart’ whereby Jesus cultivated a love for the stranger. He never turned his back on the foreigner or the one who was estranged from the community, be it a Roman centurion, a leper or even a criminal being crucified beside him.
Life at times can be, for all of us, an experience of displacement. We can all claim, at some level, refugee status with Jesus: there are those places in our lives where we may feel not at home with others and ourselves. It is as if we are in a foreign land and rather than feeling like we are under the consoling power of Jesus’ love, “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3:12) we find ourselves, rather, in a wasteland of fear and uncertainty.
Fr. Joe Palmisano, SJ (center) concelebrates Mass with Fr. Provincial Myles Sheehan, SJ (left) and brother Jesuits at his profession of final vows.
I recently underwent a thirty-day regime of radiation for a brain tumor. I am thirty-six years old. The tumor is a slow growth and now, after following the discipline of treatment, and the advice of my doctors, the tumor is already showing signs of extensive remission.
While I have much to thank God for, this experience of treatment has been my Egypt. This foreign land of radiation tables, facemasks and powerful drugs has left me, in many ways, feeling displaced from my very self. I wondered if I would ever return ‘home’, to a place of normalcy. At some point, however, in the midst of feeling alone and worrying about the future, I came to realize how populated the desert could be! My brother Jesuits and lay collaborators, my family, my doctors and nurses, my friends continue to be there for me, reassuring me.
Jesus invites all of us during these forty days of Lent into the practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving: to pray for others who ask for our prayers; to fast from feelings of shame and to trust in the all encompassing compassionate love of God; and, in turn, to pray for the grace that we might be able to give the ‘alms’ of compassionate embrace to those who are estranged from us or feel estranged from God.
About the Author
Fr. Joseph Palmisano, SJ, originally wrote this article for the Spring 2011 JESUITS magazine. He is author of the book “Beyond the Walls: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edith Stein on the Significance of Empathy for Jewish-Christian Dialogue” published in 2012 by Oxford University Press.