The seeds for this reflection were planted on our recent FRAYAM retreat, Christ in the Chaos. Overjoyed with the fellowship and breakthroughs I experienced with my fellow young adults on the retreat, I felt more peace and equanimity than I had in a long time, having had a profound encounter with God. Once I returned to daily life, however, that peace became more elusive as chaos again intruded:
Like St. Peter in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the more I became preoccupied with the havoc around me, the faster I sank beneath the waves. I knew God was with me, but I had become disconnected from His presence as a daily companion. My prayer life dwindled, it was a hardship to make time for daily Scripture reading, and I began to question God’s plan for my life – if there was even a plan. My joy and hope evaporated. Socializing brought more pain, and I isolated myself from loved ones as I struggled to hang on and survive. I couldn’t explain what I was going through and didn’t want to burden others with my problems when they clearly had more than enough of their own. I had entered the “back of the beyond,” that barren place within that is far removed from all solace, also known to us from Scripture as the wilderness.
The concept of the wilderness figures is prominent in the Bible. It is a wasteland of doubt, testing, and, as St. John of the Cross described it in The Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night, “mortification of the senses,” where we are progressively purged of all attachments that would hinder us from union with God. We all know the story of the Exodus, where the children of Israel physically wandered the desert for forty years before finally entering the Promised Land. The book of 1 Kings tells us of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness, fearing for his life and despairing over his mission after delivering a devastating blow to the prophets of Baal. And the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus Himself as being “driven into the wilderness” by the Holy Spirit for forty days and nights, to be tempted by Satan.
In each of these examples, the wilderness comes after an intense, first-hand experience of God. The Israelites witnessed the impenetrable Red Sea being parted before them and walked across on dry land as their enemies drowned behind them. Elijah had called down fire from heaven to consume his water-soaked offering so that the power of the one true God would be revealed. Jesus had just been announced as the Lamb of God. He who would take away the sins of the world. He was baptized and confirmed by the Father’s voice and the presence of the Spirit before a large crowd. Why is it, then, that desolation always seems to follow these brilliant moments? Why is the triumph so brief and the subsequent darkness so long?
Unfortunately, we can’t live forever on the mountain of spiritual triumph. Big, public acts of God are signs to the world that He is real and loves us enough to intervene in our circumstances. But the ego is a deceptive and pernicious thing, and if all we know is continued victory, we risk ascribing it our own greatness instead of recognizing it as the gift of God it is. The wilderness is for our own personal development and must be a hidden and individual journey. It gives us a significant opportunity to put all we’ve learned of the Virtues, faith, and the Christian life into practice because that is literally the only way to traverse the landscape.
I have found that there is more to the wilderness than trial. God, Himself is in that place, and if we renounce our need for control, answers, and outcomes, the wilderness becomes a place of strength. As we are physically and spiritually pared down to the essentials, we come to realize that God alone is the source of everything we need, as every other comfort and distraction is taken away. Because of this, we must not resist entering the desert. Paradoxically, in the silence when the pain is so great, we can barely whisper a prayer, God is drawing us to His very heart. When we’ve reached the end of our resources and beg, like Elijah, that the Lord would just take our lives, then He comes with unexpected consolation. God ministers to our deepest needs with healing water from what had been a parched rock and with manna for strength for the continuing journey.
Our sojourn in the wilderness lasts as long as necessary, so it varies from person to person. God knows exactly what is required to make us holy. The truth is, we will live a diminished and perpetually unsatisfied life as long as we run from the challenge of surrender. We must give our own fiat, saying, like the Blessed Mother, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:37-39, NRSVCE)
It’s a scary thing to completely abandon ourselves to whatever the Lord has in mind for us. Relinquishing control of one’s life feels impossible, especially as the world becomes more perilous and unpredictable. Yet, the feeling of power and control is an illusion, which is precisely why we are called to give it up. Jesus says in Matthew 16:24-25 (NRSVCE), “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The Way of the Cross, that path of sorrow and joy, is the only way through the wilderness to eternal life. As God speaks to us in Isaiah, if we trust Him utterly, He will change our lives in ways we can’t even imagine: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19, NRSVCE)
If you, like me, find yourself in the “back of the beyond” with a broken heart and no help in sight, tarry there a little while longer. Jesus is not far away. He hasn’t abandoned us, and He hears our prayers. As I wait for Him, I know when my deliverance comes, He and I will walk out of the desert hand in hand so that, as in the Song of Solomon, it will be a marvel: “Who is this coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?” (Song of Solomon 8:5, NRSVCE)