Some time ago I joined the pastoral care staff of a hospital for three months. It was part of “ministry training” away from my usual friends and supports. I thought of it as a desert experience, something new, scary, testing my limits. And yes, I did have to overcome fear, take night calls to the ER, learn to visit families in the surgery waiting room. I soon became confident out there in the desert.

Then one day, as I was dropping in on patients in ICU attached to machines and tubes, I realized I was starting to cut myself off from the suffering around me. I was not in bed, I was not in traction or on a breathing apparatus, I was pain-free and ambulatory. My normalcy was making it difficult to feel the situation of people who were waiting for pain medication, facing the dark.

I see now it was the sick who lived the mystery of faith. They were “in training.” They wrestled the spirits, looking for the consolation of God. I came to learn something beyond ministry: call it solidarity with the sick, or becoming brother to the poor, feeling a oneness with the cancer patient, and with her nurse, and her oncologist. We are together in this testing, keeping faith, seeking our own souls.

Lent begins. The gift of the season lies in the desert, at the edge of our competence, with the poor or the helpless, with anyone who can show us our brother Christ in the human struggle. There he opens us gently to know and love who we really are.

—Fr. Richard Bollman, S.J., a Jesuit of the Chicago-Detroit province, is currently engaged in pastoral ministries in Cincinnati and at the Jesuit Center in Milford, OH.