Teaching: Deep Springs in Desert Places: Prayer

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DEEP SPRINGS IN DESERT PLACES: PRAYER


Life is a journey. At times our journey seem to go through arid periods. We feel alone and abandoned, even by God. We don't understand what is going on or what has brought us to this point. Is God displeased with us? Is God punishing us? Is this part of our purification? Day in and day out we seem to be trudging alone with a sense of aimlessness and hopelessness. We have no direction. At times it feels that we are going in circles; things look de-ja-vu-familiar, as if we have been at this point before.

Like the Israelites, we remember the times in our own Egypt of bondage, when we had it better, even if we were slaves to sin. At least then we knew what to expect. But here in the desert we are totally dependent and vulnerable. There is no one but ourselves alone. Yes, there are people all around us; there is activity going on; we are going through the motions of daily life, but the spiritual emptiness will not go away. The holy things which use to mean something, use to satisfy us, no longer do.

We cry out and our words seem to drift into space. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, far from my prayer, from the words of my cry? O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not; by night, and there is no relief for me" (Ps 22:2-3). There is no response. Our fear is that no one is listening and no one cares. Not even God. We cry even louder and with more fervor and desperation: "But you, O Lord, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me. Rescue my soul from the sword, my loneliness from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth; from the horns of the wild bulls, my wretched life" (Ps 22:20-22). There is only silence after the echo of my plea fades into the desert night.

While the feeling of aloneness and abandonment seem to grow stronger, faith continues to reassure us that God never abandons us. Faith tells us that somehow all of this is part of God's mysterious plan for us. But how long and to what purpose? At times it is hard to focus on faith and not feelings for the latter seem to be backed up by clear, experienced facts. I have no consolations in prayer only desolations. There is no visible light, only darkness. Even going through the motions of prayer seem pointless and wasted. Nothing seems to matter.

Welcome to the Exodus journey of every person from the Egypt of sin to the Promised Land of life eternal! What the Israelites experienced physically and what they learned spiritually in their forty year-desert sojourn, we will have to experience in our spiritual journey to greater intimacy with the Lord.

For the spiritual desert is not a hell-hole on earth, but a grace-event on the way to heaven.

Like the Israelites, we have experienced personally some salvific moment in which God revealed his power, his mercy, his love, his freedom, his life to us. Whether the signs and wonders were as dramatic in our lives as they were in the Israelites in Egypt is not important. What is important is that God saved us from a life of tragic consequences. If God had not intervened either dramatically or quietly, we would have continued on a path leading to nowhere and nothingness, a life of eternal separation from God, and a future full of woe.

Like the Israelites the spiritual honeymoon didn't last long, the reality that our past will not leave us so easily became clear very soon after we began our new journey. Our task masters of the past--the sinful desires and pleasures, the negative attitudinal bondage, the fears, the seemingly inescapable needs, our former way of life with its so-called friends--all seem to converge on us once again. If we give in or give up at this point, we fail the first test of the journey. Is God capable of deleivering us or not? Can God make a way when our enemies are on one side and our backs are up against a vast sea?

What did Moses tell the Israelites and what does God say to us? "Fear not! Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today....The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still" (Ex. 14:13-14). To believe that this journey has a purpose, to trust that the Lord's plan will be revealed, to be still and wait upon the Lord is to discover the first of many springs in the spiritual desert.

But even though God revealed once more his power over their enemies, the Israelites soon forgot these signs and continued to complain and grumble, to long for their past way of life, to test the Lord, to be disobedient, to give in to fear. Basically, their hearts were hardened.

This basic mind set was captured in Psalm 95 as the psalmist centuries later addressed the people of his day, speaking in the name of God. He could as well be speaking to us in our desert experience: "Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works. Forty years I loathed that generation, and I said: They are a people of erring heart, and they know not my ways. Therefore I swore in my anger: They shall not enter into my rest"(Ps 95: 8-11).

What is the purpose of the spiritual desert? To get in touch with sin within us. Sin is what hardens our heart against God. Not just any sin, but the root or dominant sin of our life, the habitual sin which controls our life, the sin which is our god, the skeleton-sin in the closet of our heart which we are afraid to confront, the security blanket sin which we have clung to for years, the sin we fall back into when we no longer can trust that God can provide for our needs, the convenient sin which is ready to satisfy us, even for a fleeting moment.

As a way of helping us confront sin, God leads us to a number of oases during our journey, places where we find deep springs. These are not meant to be final resting places, but aids on the journey. What are these oases? God feeds us, not with manna which lasts for one day, but the Bread of Life, the Eucharist, our life-giving food for the spiritual journey. How often have we taken this gift for granted or treated it as something mundane and ordinary? How often have we failed to recall the words of Jesus in the Gospel? "I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world....Let me solemnly assure you, he who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:51-54). If we understood the gift, we will yearn and hunger for this gift daily. Even if we feel nothing during the moments following the reception of Eucharist, being grateful and consciously present to the sacramental presence of God within us in faith will be like a source of energy and strength working unseen within us. Without this Bread of Life we will surely die in the desert.

The Israelites experienced the gift of water from the rock when they complained that they were dying of thirst in the desert. We experience many graces on our journey, graces which we seem unaware of because they seem so ordinary or so expected. Because they are graces for and of the moment and not the once-in-the -lifetime, extraordinary graces we take very little notice. But again without these graces--unmerited favors from God--we would not be able to survive the journey ahead.

For the Israelites the Mount of Sinai was another oasis. Here God called the people to enter into a new covenant with him, a covenant-life based on the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. These commandments were the basis of their relationship with God and with neighbor, a relationship of love.

Instead the people chose to make a god that they could fashion and control: their golden calf. They chose a no-god over the only God. They bowed down before a god who would not chastise them or correct them, a god who would be blind and deaf to their debauchery. But in fact, they sold themselves back into slavery and bondage to Satan, the pseudo-god who would exact everything from them, including life itself.

The Word of God serves as another place of rest and refurbishing. Recall the words of Paul to Timothy: "You have known the sacred Scriptures, the source of the wisdom which through faith in Jesus Christ leads to salvation. All Scripture is inspired of God and is useful for teaching--for reproof, correction, and training in holiness, so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work"(2 Tim 3:15-17).

Even though the words found in the scripture also seem to have no meaning for us at the time we are in the spiritual desert, by faithfully immersing ourselves in the Word, we will fortify ourselves for the journey ahead. The scriptures help us keep our eyes and heart fixed upon the Lord who we still see only in faith. With Paul we can attest: "We do not fix our gaze on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever....We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 5:7).

One of the oasis which seems the strangest in our journey is the one where God reminds us that we must learn to live in the present moment and not in the past or the future. For it is only in the present moment that we are can respond to the call to serve the other. It is in this present moment we are invited by God not to focus on our own struggle and need but on the need of the other, to die to self and to be life-giving to another. Like the other oases, we do not understand God's ways. Helping another, reaching out unconditionally, loving when we feel unloved and incapable of loving anyone, seem to be not what is needed at the moment in our life. And yet Jesus insists that this is indeed important. "I solemnly assure you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The man who loves his life loses it, while the man who hates his life in this world preserves it to life eternal. If anyone would serve me, let him follow me, where I am, there will my servant be. If anyone serves me, him the Father will honor" (John 12:24-27).

The purpose of each of these oases of deep spiritual springs in the desert journey is to enable us to confront sin in our lives. It is only when we are ready to let go control of this area of our life, to allow God through his power to crush the hardness of our heart, to yield to the Lord's timing and process, that a break through can take place and we can be transported to new spiritual heights. Only then can the desert journey end for the time being until God calls us once more to grow into greater holiness.

It is God who leads us into the desert. Listen to the words of the prophet Hosea concerning the infidelity of Israel: "So I will allure her, I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart" (Hosea 2:16). And when we are ready to respond to the Lord again with our whole heart, it is God who leads us out of the desert. Again, listen to the joyful words of God through the mouth of the same prophet: "I will espouse you to me forever; I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord....I will say...'You are my people,' and (you) shall say, 'My God.'" (Hosea 2: 21-22, 25)

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