The Wilderness Within ©
I confess that the idea for this reflection came from reading a commentary in Living with Christ. In it, the writer asks, “Where is your wilderness?” referring to Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness. She adds, “For some of us, the wilderness is a place we visit deliberately in order to shed the accumulated baggage of our busy lives…For others, it is a feeling we recall as a way of getting in touch with our own or another’s pain.” And she closes by writing, “Knowing where that wilderness is likely to be found can help us prepare for the challenges it poses.”
I was struck by these comments, maybe because they tie in with two things happening in my life right now: first, my purposeful reflection on the dynamics of conversion; and second, and my re-reading of Saint John of Cross’ Dark Night (of the Soul).
As I prepared to comment on Luke’s Gospel story of the temptations of Jesus, I reflected on the links between the familiar temptations to which our Lord was subjected and the dark night. We are, all of us, familiar with that dark night, in one way or another, at one time or another. When Jesus entered the wilderness, he was not alone. We know of Satan’s presence, but often overlook the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” when he returned from the Jordan, where he was baptized. This, we can assume, should be a source of comfort. But then Luke adds that Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” You might think, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
But here’s where Saint John of the Cross can illuminate our incomprehension. The great Spanish mystic wrote amazing poems to capture the agony and the ecstasy of walking with the Lord. In them, we see how God takes those who seek to be closer to him down a dark, lonely path, full of foreboding. If he loves us, why does he do this? He does it because he knows we have got baggage that we need to leave behind – baggage people see and baggage we hide from view. The journey makes little sense – that is, until we’ve traveled further down the road. He takes us through darkness in order to dispel the shadows that inhabit our soul and, I would add, our psyche.
Jesus leads the way in everything: in baptism, in self-giving love and in rising to new life. But we forget sometimes that he leads us into the wilderness in order to show us how to come out of it stronger, with a better sense of our mission and purpose. Jesus entered the wilderness at a very precise moment in his life: just before undertaking his public ministry. He needed to clarify his mission and purpose. He needed to make sure that he was ready for a mission in which he would face fierce opposition and mortal danger. This was no romantic or idealistic adventure. He needed to be whole and fully alive in order to continue his journey.
The same is true for us. We begin our spiritual journey with safe ideas about being good and faithful members of God’s church. But then, sooner or later, we come to see the darker side of discipleship – the risks, the doubts and the hard choices. We fall to our knees in those times because only prayer brings comfort. That’s part of the journey – turning to God for the resources that we need. Sometimes we feel his presence and sometimes we don’t, but remain faithful, not because we must or even because we need to but because we want to. At this point we agree with Peter that only Jesus has the words of eternal life… real life. Real life is demanding. To have it we must be real ourselves. Real life demands we rid ourselves of the baggage that being real – the illusions, the fears, and defence mechanisms, in particular. We need to either strip them away or let God strip them away. Saint John suggests that either thing can happen. We can throw out of the boat whatever risks sinking it. Or, the Holy
Often, this passage begins with our so desiring to live that we take the initiative; then the Holy Spirit finishes the job. Saint John calls this purification or purgation. The last verse of the first stanza of his poem The Dark Night refers to the fruit of that effort as stillness. It reads, “My house being now all stilled.”
In his explanation of what this means, he states, “For those who must afterward enter into the other more oppressive nights of the spirit in order to reach the divine union of love, this night is ordinarily accompanied by burdensome trials and sensory temptations.” In fact, he raises three types of trials, which bring to mind the temptations of Jesus.
The first that he refers to is what he calls “The spirit of fornication”. This is not necessarily a sexual reference. Fornication is seen here as any form of sensory narcissistic gratification. He writes, “An angel of Satan, which is the spirit of fornication, is given to some to buffet their sense with strong and abominable temptations and afflict their spirit with very vivid images.” What first happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Luke writes that the devil says to Jesus who was famished because of his forty-day fast, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In other words, he was saying to Jesus, “You have the power to satisfy your own needs and to turn your pain into pleasure.” But what does Jesus reply? “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” In other words, “I rely not on my own power but on the power of my Father whose Spirit is greater than the satisfaction of my senses.” Jesus was presented with this temptation in order that he may learn to overcome the needs of the senses and in order to satisfy the desires of the soul. Doesn’t that sound familiar? We see it in our kids all the time. They can’t defer the satisfaction of something they want right now in order to gain something they probably desire more but would have to wait for. We’re the same as adults, only in different, more subtle ways.
Then Saint. John writes, “At other times the blasphemous spirit is added.” These blasphemies are nothing more than putting our own wisdom and sovereignty above those of God. What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Luke tells us that the devil taunts him by saying, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority.” In fact, he was saying, I have dominion over the ways of the world. You can do anything that you want in this world. Believe me; it’s all yours to do with what you will. Believe me!” That too sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The world has a logic all its own. In this world, God’s logic makes no sense. So why listen to the word of God. It’s nonsense! It takes a well-anchored person to respond as Jesus did. “To the contrary, this world is filled with illusion and lies. Only God is real and he alone gives us all things.
Finally, Saint John of the Cross writes, “Sometimes another loathsome spirit, which Isaiah calls spiritus vertiginis is sent to try these souls.” The Latin word vertiginis is related to the English word vertigo, which is the dizziness some of us feel standing at great heights. It also serves as a metaphor for confusion. What is Jesus’ third and final temptation? He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, the highest of heights in Judaism, and he is told by the devil, “Throw yourself down from here.” Not only will you not be hurt but you will be served by God’s angels. Jesus replies “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus refuses to play the devil’s game. Jesus refuses the games we all play to avoid getting in touch with our own or another’s pain, or to shed the accumulated baggage of our wounded lives.
St. John of the Cross points out that “God generally sends these storms and trials in this sensory night and purgation to those whom He will afterward put in the other night, which is the dark night of the spirit. That’s why Luke tells us that “when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Scripture tells us that temptations are instructive. They tell us a lot about ourselves and, if we overcome them, we stand on solid ground to pursue our mission. In Ecclesiastes, we read, “He who is not tempted, what does he know? And he who is not tried, what are the things he knows?” Jeremiah adds, “You have chastened me Lord, and I was instructed.”
God has bigger plans for us than the timid dreams that we have for ourselves. But he knows that we can’t accomplish these wonderful things if we’re burdened with baggage, or paralyzed by fear, or crippled by invisible and maybe even subconscious wounds. So he calls us to healing. But that healing is not magical. It requires us to overcome the temptation to ignore going into our inner darkness, and to face what God wants to heal. Jesus entered his own wilderness for the same reason. Though he was the Son of God, he was also human and, as such, exposed to human foibles. His strength came from deferring to the light that can never be diminished by the darkness.