I’m writing this blog post from a flat in the North of England, which stands on the grounds of what was once a thirteenth-century Dominican monastery. I’m here alone so that my elderly parents have somebody to deliver groceries in the event that one of them becomes unwell. Being a very family-orientated person, I was initially far from happy about my new living situation, my feelings oscillating between irritation at the noise from the neighbours and an almost crushing sense of loneliness. Walking round the streets of my hometown and seeing much-loved small shops and cafés closed – some of whom may not recover from this crisis – left my heart grieved. If you’re self-isolating or keeping your distance from friends and loved ones for their own good, you may be experiencing similar feelings. Whether you live in a spacious suburban house or a tiny city-centre flat, spiritually the current landscape looks very similar for all of us. We are in the desert.
However, this need not be a reason for despair. We must remember that, as Christians, the desert holds a unique and sacred place in our spirituality and heritage. It was into the desert that Moses led the Israelites, there to wander for the next forty years. It was to the desert that the prophet Elijah fled when persecuted by the wicked queen Jezebel. Jesus was driven ‘by the Spirit’ into the desert shortly after His baptism, there to be ‘with the wild beasts’ (Mark 1: 13). For all of these, the desert represented a place where their faith, not to mention their faithfulness, would be tested. But it would also become a place where they saw with their own eyes the miraculous provision of our amazing God. Amid temptation, hunger pangs and cries of desperation, manna rains down from Heaven, water springs from the rock, and angels show up – with cake, no less.
Few, if any, of us would, I suspect, be likely to think of the desert as a great place for a wedding. But for the ancient Israelites, the wilderness of Sinai was the place God elected to enter into an indissoluble covenant with His chosen people. In his book, Jesus the Bridegroom, Brant Pitre writes:
‘From an ancient Jewish perspective, the history of salvation was centered on the events that took place at Mount Sinai during the exodus of Egypt at the time of Moses. And from an ancient Jewish perspective, the relationship between God and Israel that was established at Mount Sinai was not just a sacred bond revolving around the laws of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of the biblical prophets, what happened at Mount Sinai was nothing less than a divine wedding.’
The significance of these events is alluded to by the LORD Himself when He says to Moses, on the slopes of Sinai: “You yourselves have seen what I did with the Egyptians, how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to Myself’ (Exodus 19: 4; emphasis mine). The wilderness, then, represents a place where the most sacred of all unions can take place. By entering willingly into the desert, we can respond more fully to the invitation to enter into the very heart of our God.
The desert fathers and mothers understood this great mystery, deliberately seeking the aridity and solitude of the Scetes wilderness as a means of radical renunciation and single-hearted devotion to Christ. Wilfully embracing lives devoid of material comfort and, in many cases, human contact, they knew that it is only in the desert that we realise how truly lonely, hungry and thirsty we are, and only here that we can truly make space for the One who longs to fill us with Himself. In the modern world, this reality is still lived out by those called to the monastic or eremitical lifestyles, often in the midst of bustling towns and cities, the walls of the enclosure or hermitage demarcating the boundaries of that timeless space where the soul can finally be alone with God. Their lives bear witness to one of life’s great paradoxes: that the one who appears to have nothing is really the one who has everything.
As we watch and pray for our current crisis to be over, perhaps we can take something from their example to emulate in our own lives. Many of us will find that, with homes filled with various means of entertainment, there’s ample opportunity to distract ourselves from the reality of what’s happening. But perhaps we’re not meant to – at least not all of the time. Instead of fighting against the wilderness, we might try embracing it in our spiritual practice. By learning to sit quietly with the emptiness and aridity of life in the time of Coronavirus, we can give God the space to work in us, to complete what He has already begun and unite us more perfectly to Himself. Doing so might cause the Church, once all of this is over, to return to the world more resplendent than before, causing all who see her to marvel: ‘Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning on her Beloved?’ (Song of Songs 8: 5).
By Lucy Stothard
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