The interior desert

By R. William Carroll

Last weekend on our vestry retreat, we did a brief Bible study on Psalm 30. One of the verses we reflected on for some time was verse 6, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Certainly one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, it anticipates the Paschal mystery, in which we pass over with our Lord Jesus, out of death into life. The whole Psalm exalts God, who has lifted the Psalmist up from deep suffering. He has been brought very low from a place of security and strength, and then, suddenly, God lifts him up again to a place of safety and joy. A truly disturbing thought is found in verse 8: “Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.”

What would it mean for God to hide God’s face from us? What a terrifying thought. The vestry and I spoke about the experience of Good Friday, when Jesus is broken on the cross, and God’s heart skips a beat as he lies dead in the tomb. On Good Friday, everything falls to pieces, and not even God can pick them up again until Easter.

The hiding of God’s face is a popular theme in monastic literature. The source of this is the story where God tells Moses that he cannot look on God’s face. So Moses hides himself in the rock, and looks at God’s backside as God passes by. Luther takes up this tradition as he discusses the distinction between Law and Gospel. His whole quest, to find a gracious God, could be described as a search for God’s face. Other writers use the theme to describe the experience of God’s absence at the heart of many a spiritual journey, an experience often labeled the “dark night of the soul,” a phrase used by the great Carmelite, John of the Cross.

At times, God seems to be silent and withdrawn. Whatever intimacy and friendship with God we have known disappears, and there is only a void. It is a time when we may face severe temptation, when we may have to cling to God in faith and love, even when there seems to be no sound basis for either. How long, O Lord, another Psalm asks, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? The Psalms are not filled with false piety but with a genuine struggle for faith.

Writers about the Christian spiritual journey often hearken back to what is called the desert experience. The early mothers and fathers would journey into the desert to face their demons and find God. We often think that the life of prayer should be a source of comfort and joy, but it is also a risky venture. True prayer causes us to let go of our certainties, our desires, and our will, seeking nothing but God. This is especially important in an age that sees “spirituality” as just one more commodity to be purchased, or a source of religious “highs.”

Thomas Merton, no stranger to the desert experience, once wrote:

“The true contemplative is not one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but is one who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect to anticipate the words that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is ‘answered,’ it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.”

I think that all of us can experience this interior desert. We don’t have to travel far away either. We can encounter the desert in our day to day lives. And I think this fact points us, we who don’t necessarily believe in a devil and certainly not one with a pointy tail, to what is really going on in the threefold temptation of Christ. Here we see the very Word of God confronted with God’s silence. Jesus will face this silence again in Gethsemane and on the Cross. In the Gospels, we see Jesus wrestling with his vocation when God’s face is hidden, yet embracing it with love.

Today, in the desert, Jesus defines himself through responsible choices. Throughout his ministry, he says “yes” to some things and “no” to others. Satan knows how to make a good offer, some of the things he would give Jesus are quite attractive and seductive—food when he is starving, in one case, and all the kingdoms of this world (they are apparently Satan’s to give), in another. The devil even cites Scripture in support. Nevertheless, three times, Jesus says “no,” remaining steadfast and faithful in the midst of real temptation. So the devil leaves him, and the angels wait upon him.

Lent is a time of intentionally clearing space for God. We shouldn’t be surprised if we encounter a great and awful silence, when we do so. Fasting and self-denial are meant to leave us without the props we use to fill in the spaces that are meant for God alone. Silence and solitude open us up to thoughts and feelings we ordinarily drown out with the noise and busy-ness of our lives. The Scriptures point us to God’s promises and steadfast love—to the powerful Word that lies hidden in God’s silence.

This is how it goes when we walk in God’s presence for any length of time. The Israelites too, when they left Egypt, wandered forty years in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. They doubted God’s good intentions and complained that Moses had led them out to kill them. It took faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other until they reached the Promised Land.

The Good News is: we have a God who is able to journey with us as we really are. And to lead us, kicking and screaming if necessary, into freedom. I’d like to close with another text from Merton, a famous and beloved prayer. I was discussing it with a parishioner the other day, and it reminded me of the sermon I preached in front of my parish’s search committee. It was about a friend of mine who died too young. This prayer was one of his favorites, and he took great comfort in it, in the last days of his life. It makes for a wholesome meditation in this desert season, or whenever God’s face seems hidden from us.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson and blogs at Anglican Resistance. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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