[author's note: i have been reading Wilfrid Stinissen's little book: Into Your Hands, Father, and it brought to mind this an essay i wrote several years ago. i thought i would share it with you. it is rather long, so i'm brining it forward in several parts.]
FINDING GOD IN THE DESERT
So, I would ask again: How are we to comprehend the Holy God’s steep demand for surrender? To answer I would suggest another series of questions –
Would God really require something of us that was not best for us? Would God really call for us to surrender and not bring victory back to us out of such an act? Would God, who for us did not even spare his own son from execution, not freely give us all things, especially himself? Could it be that the individual out-working of the new life God has for us in Christ can only escalate from those frozen moments spent before him in the heat of silence, solitude and prayer? Could it be that a genuine covenant relationship with God – loving him and not the world, seeking him first and not our own comfort and freedom – is the path for our true human-ness to blossom and for us to know his thick and radiant love for us?
Here’s what we must remember: God’s love for us is so immersed in care, so dazzling in hue, and so compelling in power that he is determined we not miss his presence. At the same time, he will not avoid or invade our freedom. This means that by nature GOD is free and by creation and redemption so are we. This also means throughout our life, since God is determined to love us, the pilgrim-of-faith will experience the steady summons of God! And while this summons is an urgent sound, its tones are comprised of a soft cadence, with words of sweet fragrance and gaping openness. It is the summons from the heart of a friend tracking our soul, seeking time with us. It is a call that seeks to engulf us with fresh spiritual oxygen and with the promise of a renewed human-ness.
Yet, even while GOD pursues us in love some may ignore his call and ultimately never experience his beauty. But once we have chosen to partner with him, he intensifies the work of grace in us, creating and extending his touch, so we learn how to love and enjoy him more and more. Thus, the question is, will we ever cease churning out only these self-experiences, and instead, will we learn to expend time with the God who loves us?
The Medieval church attempted to respond to these demands of The Holy on their lives by creating a seasonal calendar that remembered the key life-points of Jesus, thus measuring the year by the confines of the Savior, and also by observing what was called the Divine Hours. The Hours attempted to break down each day into seven prayer-periods, with each segment having a particular theme associated with it. It was during these seven prayer hours that the monastic church stopped its work activity and daily made space in their lives for God. This then became the church at prayer. They prayed by reciting TEXTS of scripture (especially the Psalms), by meditating on the TEXT (this was called lectio divina) by contemplation (go here and here) -- sometimes called the prayer of the quiet -- and by vocal, intercessory prayer.
What is even more interesting is that the Hours actually developed from the life experiences of a group of third and fourth century Christians who came to be known as the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers. It seems that in these early centuries of the Christian faith there occurred a fleeing of many Christians away from civilization and into the wilderness of Egypt and Syria. These were the first Christian hermits, and we might well ask, what would cause such people to flee to the desert and separate themselves from the comforts of the world?
In the beginning many ran into the desert to escape persecution, but this eventually led to a general movement to the wilderness. The basic reasons for such actions included a rejection of an easy-believeism that had developed in the church after the acceptance of Christianity as the official State religion of the Roman Empire. Some of these hermits also sought to “die” to the influence of the world, modeling themselves after the Christian martyrs who had actually died during the earlier Roman persecutions. Others went to the desert to act as intercessors for the church, believing that prayer was the primary act of the community of faith. And some even fled society as preparation for the second advent, believing that Jesus would return very soon.
For me, by far the most compelling reason that these strange men and women deserted their culture for the desert, was their desire for holiness (sometimes called sanctification, and sometimes called theosis, which is the process of a mystical participation in God). That is, they believed that love of God was expressed through a holiness of life or a purity of heart that came only as a direct result of an unmediated experience of the Living, Holy God.
This meant that they became desert dwellers because they loved God and desired that their lives would always be pleasing to him. Their focus, then, became God and God alone. No distractions were allowed; no interruptions were accepted. Day after day through this ascetical life of solitude they searched for God in the inner world of the heart, following hard after his presence and opening themselves to his continuing creative work. As one of these hermits, Abba Poemen, said, “Let us enter our cell (i.e. the small cave or hut where they lived), and sitting there remember our sins, and the Lord will come and help us in everything.”
We look at these hermits today with a certain mixture of fascination and shock. Say what you will about these strange individuals, however, their actions are not without biblical precedent. Indeed, their fleeing to the desert seems to be based upon a rather consistent model of desert dwellers found in the biblical materials. In fact, their quest for solitude as a journey toward God may be seen in several highly visible TEXTS, so a strong case could be made for the existence of a general biblical idea that, if one really wanted to meet God, then one traveled to the desert because God especially dwelled in the thin air of quiet mountain solitude and the densely sparse places:
One day while Moses was taking care of the sheep and goats of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he led the flock across the desert and came to Sinai, the holy mountain. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him as a flame coming from the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up." This is strange," he thought. "Why isn't the bush burning up? I will go closer and see." When the Lord saw that Moses was coming closer, he called to him from the middle of the bush and said, "Moses! Moses!"
He answered, "Yes, here I am." God said, "Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." So Moses covered his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6 TEV)…
Or, speaking of John the Baptist the TEXT reads:
The child grew and developed in body and spirit. He lived in the desert until the day when he appeared publicly to the people of Israel. (Luke 1:80 TEV)…
And even the Lord Jesus himself place himself in the desert:
Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. In all that time he ate nothing, so that he was hungry when it was over. (Luke 4:1,2 TEV)…
The next morning Jesus awoke long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray. (Mark 1:35 NLT)