Into the Desert

When everyday life interferes with Lenten reflection, I pray to withdraw from the routine to see and hear God better.

Author: Emily Dagostino '02

On Ash Wednesday, God told me to not let one hand know what the other is doing. God told me to wash my face and anoint it with oil. God told me to lock myself in an inner room before I kneel and pray. Then the deacon put a cross of ashes on my forehead and sent me back into the world, telling me to remember I came from dust and to dust I’ll return. 

Why was God telling me to hide my faith at the same time that my forehead was overtly smudged with it? Why was I being asked to rebuff the temptations of this world while mired in it? 

After the prayer service, I texted my mom that I’d been fasting and felt like it was just making me angry. She told me to eat something. 

“Besides, our new Lenten practice is to do more good, not eat less food.” 

“Do more good,” I replied. “Here’s hoping I can get better over these next 40 days in the desert. Except it’s not a desert. It’s the same life as always.” 

Work was frustrating. My dog was dying. My phone was buzzing, and noise was everywhere: cars speeding by; wood chippers destroying trees outside; helicopter rotors chopping overhead; ambulance, police and fire sirens wailing out another tragedy just down the street. 

People were everywhere, too, and I felt at best displaced from and at worst rejected by many of them. My mom said she hoped I’d find an oasis in the desert. 

“I’m praying to withdraw from everything that pulls me away from God, and to move toward what helps me see and hear God better.” Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

There was no desert to retreat to; however, for the time being there were four churches within two miles of my home, so I went back to them to see what God might have to say. 

On the second day of Lent, God reminded me that Jesus was rejected, too. But you can count on me, was the Word. I’ll never reject you. 

On the third day of Lent, God told me if I wanted to fast, then I shouldn’t make a big deal about it. Whatever you do, don’t do it to make yourself look or feel better. Do it because you want to be closer to me. 

This is my 43rd Lenten journey. I’m praying to find a desert here in Chicago amid these routine confines of daily living. I’m praying to withdraw from everything that pulls me away from God, and to move toward what helps me see and hear God better. 

As my husband, son and I left prayer service on Ash Wednesday, our son noticed an offering bowl by the door and asked if we had any money to give. 

“Don’t let your right hand know what your left is doing,” I joked, as my husband handed him a bill. Our son smiled back, tucked a hand behind his back and, with the other hand, stuffed the bill in the slot.

It’s not about what I give up, or how much I give, or about making sure my acts of faith are seen. It’s about the word of God. The wisdom of a parent. The generosity of a child, who, first thing after the prayer service, scrubs the cross of ash off his forehead. 

I’m praying this Lent to remember at all times why I’m trying to change in the first place. 

Emily Dagostino is a writer living in Oak Park, Illinois. Read more of her work at