The Desert: A Roundabout Way
For over 25 years I lived in one of the poustinias in our Madonna House center in Combermere, Ontario. As many people know from Catherine Doherty’s book Poustinia, the word means “desert” in Russian. A poustinia is a small cabin where people go (ordinarily for a day) of prayer and fasting, though some, as I did, live there several days a week as a way of life. The desert may seem like a very roundabout way of fostering Christ’s work on earth, but it is there, in the wilderness, that some of our basic formation happens.
The desert could be a physical place; it could be a period of illness or breakdown of some kind; it could be a decision to stop living superficially. In any case, it’s a movement away from slavery to our illusions, compulsions, and superficial living, and a decision to enter an unknown land - the desert – either geographically or within ourselves.
The wilderness or desert is one of the major themes in the bible. If we consider the history of God’s dealings with Israel as normative for our own personal relationship with him, then an understanding and a re-living of what happened to Israel in the desert is crucial to our own life with God.
Have we ever given much serious thought to the possibility that a desert experience of some kind may be part of our own personal salvation history? Israel’s desert experience was crucial for their formation as God’s people. Might it not be crucial for us as well? Although there are four different words for “desert” or “wilderness” in the scriptures, the one most frequently used refers to the sojourn of Israel in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.
God’s people were eager, not to say desperate, to get out of Egypt, with all its back-breaking work and all the conditions that accompany the condition of slavery. But not too long after their departure the difficulties of Egypt looked pretty good compared to the situation they now found themselves in.
We can identify with this. Probably all of us, at one time or another, have managed to escape from a painful situation, only to discover that we are in another of a very different kind. In this new desert we are being forced to depend more on God, so we pine for the pains we knew rather than suffer this new dependency on the Lord. At least we could mange in our state of illness. We knew who we were (though we weren’t really in touch with our deeper self), and we were “surviving.” In the desert we actually experience some of our diseases slipping away from us, and the prospect of spiritual health frightens us. The world of purification seems more frightening than the slavery of Egypt.
Why is the desert frightening? (A young woman came out of her poustinia, desert, experience one day and said to me that she was afraid in there. I said, “Afraid of what, there’s nobody there.”) The desert is threatening because it is the place which lacks all the supports which we believe are necessary for our existence.
The presence of other people is absent in the desert. Other people are one of our main supports to reassure us that we are not alone in the universe. We give lip service to the fact that there is Another present in our lives, the Person of all persons. In the desert we are actually challenged to put all our trust in this other. We must now wager our whole existence on the presence of this Other. We were once under the illusion that we were “at home” with God. Now we discover we are not. We must keep repeating over and over again, “Lord, you are people and presence and company enough for me.” In the desert this sentence is no longer beautiful poetry but a matter of life and death.
The desert is threatening because of the silence and the absence of activity normally associated with “living.” We matter-of-factly identify noise and activity with living. When something is happening, or better, when we are making something happen, we are reassured that we are not nothing, that our life is important, meaningful, and so on.
In the desert we are challenged to experience that simply to be is the greatest and most fundamental activity of which we are capable. We are challenged to experience whether or not we can live meaningfully at this most basic level. We are challenged to say (again, not as mere pious phrases, but as utter truth) “Lord, you are my life and meaning and total worth.” Ordinarily, in our egypt, we mouth this to God, and then get on with our superficial activity, our attachments, our illusions.
God actually upholds us at every moment by his creative power. But there are dimensions of realizing this power which we can foster by concretely relinquishing the superficial supports of egypt. Will we allow the conscious realization of his power to enter us by and through a desert experience? He knows that the desert can be this place of discovery, and that is why he seeks to lead us into it.
Our radical dependence on God is not an occasional event, occurring perhaps once a week. It is constant, at every moment. This is a hard lesson to learn and live out. The teaching of this lesson was part of Yahweh’s desert discipline: the Lord helped his people in the desert one day at a time. Israel was not permitted to live in security lest she forget that she was utterly dependent on him. The time in the desert was a time of experiencing constant dependence.
Our normal relationship to God is to call on him from time to time when life gets shaky; for the rest we are under the illusion of coasting, managing on our own. The temptation of the people in the desert was to continue this pseudo-existence by demanding large amounts of bread so that they would not be wondering all night whether God would feed them on the morrow.
But God does not give over-flowing storehouses of superficial food in the desert. He fed his people only one day at a time. Outside the desert, where the illusion of supporting ourselves is normal, planning and filling granaries is part of life. We rest secure in our storehouses. We turn to God occasionally to thank him for the abundance, and maybe panic a bit when they start to diminish. In the desert the storehouses are always empty. It is a time for learning total dependence, minute by minute.
The disorientation and confusion of the desert is preparation for deeper encounters. Several events take place in the wilderness which are once and for all normative for the religious life of Israel. The first of these crucial moments is the revelation of God’s name.
Each person is a little universe of his own her own, and each person experiences reality in slightly different ways. This is also true of our experience and our relationship with God. Although we all give him the same name – God – he is actually special to each one of us and in some way we each have our own name for him – what he is or means for us.
In the desert, when the supports of our personal world are removed, a new name for God emerges and is revealed to us. Just as in the history of Israel God’s name actually changed as they experienced him in different cultures and situations, so in our personal lives, God’s name, in a way, is constantly changing, or ought to. Depending on the kinds of egypts we are trying to leave behind, God will reveal himself to us in the desert, now as "“He who-gives-me-courage," or as "He-who-upholds-me-in- darkness,” or as “He-who-is-personal-center-of-everything.” In the desert God will reveal his name to us, just as he revealed it to Moses (Ex 3:6).
By this revelation of his name, God makes the desert the place where personal relationship begins. Introduction – introducing ourselves – is the first step to conversation.
The desert is a covenant-making place and a lay-making place. It’s a strange paradox to say that although Israel left Egypt as a people they were not yet a people, that is, a unity with a common law and a common God. In the desert God put order into their chaos. Out of a multitude of disunited tribes he formed a people. Their unity came about by all of them facing together the mountain of God and pledging their loyalty and their lives.
It is similar with us. We enter the desert presumably as a whole person and yet we quickly discover our fragmentation and disunity. We too are like a loose federation of warring tribes. Through the nakedness of a desert experience God wishes to unify us, to experience the basic laws of our life with him, to allow us to experience these laws as sources of life and not as restrictions on our freedom.
Through the unification that takes place in the desert, in the movement towards deeper dependence on God, a vague and general “God” becomes “my God”; and the universal “Word to mankind” becomes “God’s Word to me personally.” The wilderness was the womb of the religion of Israel. Could it be that such must be the case for each one of us – a desert experience where our personal covenant becomes a reality, unifying our fragmentation?
Total dependence is a hard lesson to learn. Because the desert is without any visible means of support it is the place where our lack of trust and faith stand out most glaringly. For the desert is also the scene of Israel’s sin which comes to light at once. God, we quickly discover, is not enough for us. We rejoiced for a little while as he fed us, as he revealed his new names to us, as he disclosed to us the basic laws of life. But we forget easily. Soon we begin to murmur and hanker after the life of Egypt. We can stand just so much reality. The great temptation periodically in the desert is to get out.
Our temptation is to “shorten the time,” to make our timetable God’s timetable, and to arrange our stay in the desert just long enough to make it interesting without endangering our normal supports. Until the Lord comes in all his fullness, we need some idols to hold onto. Outside the desert, substitutes for God remain more firm. In the desert, the only image the Lord will allow us is his changing name, as we grow in the courage to allow his presence more and more to enter our conscious lives.
Such a shifting relationship is often too illusive for us. We need some static idols – some golden calves – to attach ourselves to before we continue on our journey. The revelation of the name of God is forgotten in exchange for a visible image. We sense the need to leave Egypt, but after we get in the desert we are not so sure it was the right move. The delights of the desert can only be revealed by crossing it and by trusting in the Lord.
There is a very instructive passage in Exodus on how delicately the Lord deals with us in our journey to him. “When Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not let them take the road to the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearest way. [Look at a map of the area.] God thought that the prospect of fighting would make the people lose heart and turn back to Egypt. Instead, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds” (13:17-18)
In Yahweh’s spiritual travel plans for us, the desert - whatever form it may take - seems like a waste of time, a delaying action, an avoidance of the fight. We would like to strike straight ahead and cut down the Philistines, fight the battles, and get to the Promised Land straightaway. Why all this desert stuff?
Trouble is, we don’t really know who the real enemy is, how to fight with the Lord’s strength and not our own. In short, we haven’t yet been formed by the Lord, learned how to depend on him for our strength.
It seems, in the Lord’s mind, that before we can fight the philistines n our own lives and in our society, we must learn the art of warfare at its deepest level. And what is this plan> Paradox of paradoxes, it is to keep still and let Yahweh fight for us: “Moses answered the people: ‘Have no fear! Stand firm, and you will see what Yahweh will do to save you today. The Egyptians you se today you will never see again. Yahweh will do the fighting for you; you have only to keep still” (Ex 14:13-14).
So much of our early spiritual life is more will power than relying on grace. In the desert we learn how to let down our own feeble powers and how to allow God to really be our life, our strength, our wisdom. Then we are ready to fight the Philistines. In the desert that most crucial of all questions – “Is Yahweh with us or not?” (17:7) will be answered with a depth and clarity we never dreamed possible: “Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all the gods.” (18:12).