Thursday, August 9, 2007
A DESOLATE PLACE
Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bow-shot away, for she thought, 'I cannot watch the boy die.' And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.'
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said. 'Take my life...' Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up and eat.' He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, 'Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.' So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
This is what the Lord says: 'You say about this place, "It is a desolate waste, without people or animals." Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of the bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord...'
In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them... The people... found grace in the wilderness.
At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.
He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said...'
He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' Then he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'
He said to me: 'It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.'
(Genesis 21:14-19, NW; I Kings 19: 3-8, NW; Jeremiah 33: 10-11, NIV; Isaiah 63: 9, RSV; Jeremiah 31: 2, RSV; Mark 1: 9-11, NW; Matthew 27: 46b; 28: 5-6, NIV; Revelation 21: 5-6, NW)
The desert is a wasteland, harsh and inhospitable, largely abandoned by people, animals and vegetation. It is full of extremes -- heat which by the day can kill, and cold which by night is equally deadly. Food is scarce and adequate shelter hard to find. It is a disturbing place, where a person is vulnerable.
The desert pervades the Bible. Its desolate spaces form the arena for many of the most significant encounters between God and his people. There Hagar and Ishmael found deliverance, Moses encountered the burning bush, and the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt were miraculously sustained. In this inhospitable country the Hebrews were protected, guided and brought into a covenant relationship with God. Elijah found refuge in the desert, and hope in his despair. Jesus faced fierce temptation and found strength, help and a renewed understanding of his relationship with his Father. It is not surprising that the desert experience has become one of the most significant images of the life of faith.
Life in the desert is stripped to its bare essentials. There are no luxuries, no props, no artificial disguises to hide harsh reality. For this reason, it is in the desert that things are often seen more clearly and truly. The normal supports and distractions of life are absent and we are forced to face things. The realisation of our essential helplessness, our lack of adequate resources for survival, our appalling fragility, confronts us starkly. Our brokenness,
loneliness and sinfulness cannot easily be covered up.
The desert is a very human place to be.
It takes courage to stay in the desert and not try and escape it or to take refuge in the fantasies and mirages it tempts us with. The desert is the desert, and must be treated with the respect it demands. To be there is a hard, lonely experience and often the spirit faints and longs to be elsewhere. But if we will wait with honesty and integrity, we will find that the moment of truth which comes to us is double-edged. There is the knowledge that all hope seems lost, that there is no life there, that it has overwhelmed us and we are doomed. But precisely then, mysteriously and miraculously, grace confronts us.
To our amazement, in some way or other we will discover the hidden well of God's presence with its life-giving waters. We will even stumble across delicate but beautiful desert flowers. Then we see that life not only becomes possible; it positively beckons us with vibrancy and hope. The God of the desert has declared himself.
The essential fact to grasp is that in the desert we live by trust and naked faith. All props, all non-essentials, all luxuries are taken away. The desert road is one of solitude and emptiness and it exhausts the soul. It is the place of sterility and of the divine presence, of demons and of the encounter with God.
Kenneth Leech, True Prayer
The desert was created simple, to be itself, not to be transformed into something else... The desert therefore is the logical place for those who seek to be nothing but themselves -- that is to say, creatures solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no project standing between them and their Creator.
Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
And the wilderness belongs to us. It is always lurking somewhere as part of our experience, and there are times when it seems pretty near the whole of it... Most people's wilderness is inside them... an inner isolation. It's an absence of contact. It's a sense of being alone -- boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone...
This sense of being isolated and therefore unequipped, is a necessary part, or a necessary stage, of our experience as human beings. It therefore found a place in the life of Jesus: he too did time in the wilderness. And what happened to him there shows us what is happening to ourselves. Here, as always, we see in his life the meaning of our own.
H.A. Williams, The True Wilderness
To live a spiritual life we must first find courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty...
The real spiritual guide is the one who, instead of advising us what to do or to whom to go, offers us a chance to stay alone and take the risk of entering into our own experience. He makes us see that pouring little bits of water onto our dry land does not help, but that we will find a living well if we reach deep enough under the surface of our complaints...
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out
The law of the Cross is not that evil has been eliminated, but that it has been transformed into possibility... The Cross of Christ is the penetration of God into that unholy area where we would least expect him...
John Shea, Stories of God
A life within. Poetry of the Spirit of God. Fulfilment of your longing.
In every person there is a spiritual strength which does not come from [within]. It can be refused or rejected but it is always there. It is never taken away. It is a wellspring of confident trust planted by the Spirit of the living God. Everything flows from this.
Brother Roger of Taize, Letter from the Desert
The flower I held in my hands withered in my hands... At the turn of the lane the wall rose up before me... Suddenly between the trees I saw the end of the forest which I thought had no end... The testing time had come...
But it did not bring me unalleviated sorrow. On the contrary, a glorious, unsuspected joy invaded my soul: because, in the collapse of those immediate supports I had risked giving to my life, I knew with a unique experiential certainty that I would never again rely for support on anything save your own divine stability.
Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe
It seemed to me I was wandering in a desert with no end, with empty horizons and unattainable mirages which melted into nothing... a place where I could not find any real water.
And then something came out of the silence... something stirred with the chants... nothing tangible, nothing I could see -- no, nothing like that... just something which moved out of the darkness, to enter into my soul and touch it with a kind of healing.
It was a presence in my desert... like dew silently filling the air and melting the cracked earth... I heard no voice -- but that was of no importance... I was not suddenly overjoyed -- no -- but that was not important either. It only mattered that God has been in my desert, unbeknown to me... this is all that matters because with God are the hidden wells of water.
Karen Manton, Journal
Thou sweet well for the one who thirsteth in the desert! It is closed to the one who speaks, but it is open to the silent. When the one who is silent comes, lo, the well is found.
Egyptian, thirteenth century B.C.
When desertions, doubts, discouragements and the silences of God seem to cover everything, will you discern the desert flower?...
Didn't you know? In the desert of the heart there were unfailing resources welling up, a life within, an inner light.
Brother Roger of Taize , And Your Deserts Shall Flower
'The desert is beautiful,' the little prince added. And that was true. I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams...
'What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Lord God, when I am in the desert, give me the courage to wait there for you. For it is a surprising fact that you do make the desert beautiful. Somewhere it hides the well of your life and always you open my eyes to see it just when I had thought all was lost.
Remind me that Jesus, too, had his time in the desert. He struggled there to be true to his faith and in that desolate place found the inner resources he needed to continue his pilgrimage.
I thank you that no desert is too vast or too dangerous for your presence, that no peril is beyond your power to save and deliver.
Only give me the steadfastness to remain here with integrity, knowing that in the very place of my aridity you will cause a spring of water to bubble upwards with vibrant new life. Amen.
[1 am] waiting for you, O Christ..., when all is immersed in the silence of God, waiting for you and discovering at any age, in the hollow of the heart, a source of freshness: your confidence, and the spirit of simplicity.
To each of us, you speak the same language: 'Look, I am here, at the heart of your solitude as well as in your times of joy and serenity. You are waiting for me and searching for me, so look: here I am. Why do you doubt? I have already met you. '
Brother Roger of Taize , And Your Deserts Shall Flower
May the Lord, the God of your ancestors... bless you as he has promised you!
Deuteronomy 1: 11, RSV