This absent, silent, dark God is a God Who is known in the Bible. It is a God Who is often associated with wilderness and desert. For the Bible the desert is a hot, dry, arid, lifeless, dead place, which is seemingly endless and where no relief is to be found. It is easy to get lost there, desperately easy, especially on your own, to face death there. It is a hungry and thirsty place. It is a place where God is not, or seemingly not.
And yet the Bible tells of God leading people into the wilderness. Israel is led there after the Exodus from Egypt; John the Baptist exercises his ministry there; Jesus is led there by the Spirit after His baptism. So it is potentially a place of God’s choosing and therefore of gift.
A call to the wilderness often follows on from a personal call from God. Jesus goes there after God has called Him at His baptism. The people of Israel are led there after being called out of Egypt by God. Paul goes off there after his Damascus Road experience. So we should not be surprised when we find ourselves led there too.
The wilderness is often presented as a place that has to be passed through. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor the people of Israel, in the examples quoted above, stayed in the wilderness; they passed through it. As did the prodigal son in the parable Jesus told: he learnt a lot from his miserable time there and came to his senses and left and was re-united with his father again. In the wilderness between Jericho and Jerusalem, where a man was left beaten up for dead, he found a stranger coming to his aid, saving his life, and no doubt transforming his views on foreigners for ever. His wilderness experience changed him, he was not the same afterwards. The good shepherd goes and finds the sheep lost in the wilderness and brings it safely home, rejoicing.
There are also several major wilderness experiences in The Bible, which can serve as models, teaching us something about the spiritual significance of the wilderness.
1. The Wilderness from Egypt
The longest wilderness experience in The Bible is the story of the people of Israel’s journeyings after they had been led out of Egypt by Moses. It is full of salutary wisdom about the experience!
- It comes right after a series of powerful displays of God’s providential support for the people: the miracles in Egypt against Pharoah; the story of the Passover and the escape from Egypt; and the opening up of a safe passage through the Sea. After these displays of God’s power the people are invited to trust God even when there are no such special displays, even when they are absent. It’s easy to trust God when all is going your way, and you seem to be getting a lot out of the relationship, but can you continue to trust when you appear not to be getting anything back? Are you just into this because of what you can get, or are you into it because of a true search and love for God. Can you learn to love God for God’s sake rather than just for your own?
- They spent a long time there……….forty years is probably not meant to be taken literally, but it clearly indicates a significant period of time.
- Many of them did not survive the experience, not even Moses lived to enter the Promised Land on the other side, and it fell to Joshua to lead the people across the River Jordan. Even if this is literally true, there is also symbolic truth in it, that the person/people who leave the wilderness will not be the same as those who entered it. It will change you. Or put it another way, something has to die in the wilderness, and something is re-born there too. There is both death and resurrection.
- The people in the wilderness spent a lot of time complaining and grumbling…..about provisions and the lack of them, about Moses and the inadequacies of his leadership, and about the providential care of God and the lack of it. They complained about lack of water [Exodus 15:23; 17:1ff]; the lack of food [Exodus 16:1ff], the hardships they were having to put up with [Num11:1ff].
- They suffered greatly from selective memory, which would be very amusing if it weren’t so flagrantly at odds with what had been said earlier in the story about conditions in Egypt.
Remember how in Egypt we had fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic” [Num 11:5]
“If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and had plenty of bread.” [Exodus 16:3]
- They cheerfully abandoned God for a less demanding alternative, by creating for themselves a golden calf to worship whilst Moses is detained longer than expected up the Mountain talking with God, [Exodus 32]. It seems incredible that they could so quickly and easily shift their loyalties and forget all their previous experience of God but they did.
- Yet the God Who had called them out of Egypt into this desert place continued to be present for those who had the eyes to see. Food to eat [Exodus 16:13ff] and water to drink [Exodus 17:5] was provided when they needed it; they never need go hungry or thirsty.
- Leadership in the form of Moses was provided if they would but trust him, and that leadership was regularly supplemented with contributions from Moses father in law Jethro, [Exodus 18:1ff], and a group of seventy elders [Exodus 24:1ff, and Num 11:16f]. They were never left without guidance, the more problematic question was whether they would heed it!
- And God continued to show God’s presence by being present in the other. The story of how God goes before them to guide them all through the wilderness is told in Exodus 13:21f. God guides them, being a pillar of cloud during daylight, and a pillar of fire by night: i.e God is the darkness by day, and the light by night. God is always there in the other, in the opposite, in the unlikely, the contrary. Perhaps one of the reasons for being led into the dark is so that we are no longer able to see the things we are used to, but have the opportunity to see the things we can’t see in the light. Like stepping out at night and in the darkness being able to see the stars above us, which are invisible to us during the day.
- Notice the little warning story of Caleb in Numbers 13 and 14. We are told that towards the end of the wilderness wanderings, God tells Moses to send some men to explore the Promised Land to which they have been led. Caleb leads such a group and returns with reports of what a wonderful and fruitful place it is, but that how there were also formidable obstacles to entering it. The people are struck with anxiety, wish that they had died in Egypt rather than be where they are now, and threaten to stone Caleb and his colleague Joshua. They are not willing to let go of the wilderness experience despite the fact that it is clear that it is now coming to an end. The disorientation of the new, and the need to trust God in something unfamiliar and frightening is too much for them.
- Notice also how not everybody in the Old Testament tells the story of the journey through the wilderness in the same way. Jeremiah and Hosea both sometimes recall the time spent in the wilderness as a sort of golden era when the people of Israel and their God walked hand in hand amidst deep trust, unlike the later years after they had entered the land of Palestine and were led into all sorts of false practices as a result of living there [Jeremiah 2:1-3; 31:2f; Hosea 2:16f] Mother Teresa similarly looked back on her initial period of frustration as a time of rich blessing. We shall notice a similar pattern in the Gospels as they recall the story of the Crucifixion in rather different ways. What was clearly on the one hand a very painful experience is also remembered on the other as a time when with hindsight God was very close and real and important lessons were learnt.
2. The Book of Job
I won’t tarry long over Job; sufficient to observe that it tells the story of a man who was a passionate believer in God, whom God allowed Satan to test, in order to see how real his passionate faith truly is. Job loses everything, and is ‘comforted’ by a series of friends who tell him that this must have come about because of some failing of his, and how what he needs to do now is to express his deep penitence and sorrow to God and to apologise for what ever it is he has done wrong. In offering this advice the friends were probably doing no more than giving what passed for orthodox wisdom at the time. But Job will have none of it. He insists that he has done nothing wrong, he has committed no offence to God, and therefore there is nothing for him to apologise for. His friends regard this as high handed arrogance and are not convinced. But Job prays and pleads with anguish to God, demanding that God come and state his case against him. Eventually God relents and addresses Job. He offers an awesome display of power, which silences Job; he realises that he is in no position to question God about anything at all. Job learns an important lesson about the unknowability of God, but is vindicated because God has appeared to him.
In our context, the book is a powerful statement of the importance of speaking to God about what is on our hearts, even when it may seem not our place to do so. Even when the orthodox wisdom of the day says that we are wrong to do so: we need to trust our own sense of what is right. We might be quite wrong but arguing, pleading, ranting, at God all indicate that the relationship is alive and not dead. Just be careful not to spend so much time shouting that there is never time to listen too!
3. The Crucifixion
The most powerful story of dereliction by God is of course found in the passion of Jesus. This is a story which the ‘via negativa’ knows well.
Here we see that the man who strode around Palestine teaching, talking to and about God, calling disciples, touching and healing the sick, changing people’s lives, suddenly falls silent. He becomes inactive from the moment that he is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane. From that point on He says virtually nothing, and initiates nothing. He becomes passive and is done to by others. He is entering what we have learnt to recognise as a wilderness experience.
His disciples either actively betray him, fail to understand him, or fall asleep and go absent at the crucial moments. When it counts they deny they know Him, and He is left to face the music on His own. A crowd that had appeared sympathetic and supportive suddenly turns against Him and is happy to assent to His death. He is dressed and addressed, by those who consider themselves as His opponents, in ways that are humiliating and totally misrepresent Who He is. He is condemned for something He has not done, and is led away by Himself to face a slow and agonising death, reviled by His persecutors. He is so weak that he cannot even carry his own cross to the place of execution. At the end it feels as if even the God Whom He loved and about Whom He spoke to others, has deserted Him: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He dies and the world goes dark.
At least that is how St Mark tells the story. It’s bleak, dark and lonely, without much sense of God’s presence, and seemingly hopeless. St John tells the story rather differently of course. In his Gospel, Jesus hands Himself over to the authorities in the Garden of Gethsemane; indeed they are not able to take Him without His consent. He heals the servant whom Peter attacked. He proclaims His kingship as not belonging to this world, and declines to speak to Pilate in ways that might have secured His release. He steps out carrying His own cross, and as He hangs dying makes arrangements with the beloved disciple for the care of His mother in the future. He dies having said that “It is accomplished.” This is a very different spin from Mark’s.
It’s the spin of someone reflecting some time after the event, when the horror of it all has faded a little in the memory, and a deeper and more hopeful meaning is beginning to emerge. A meaning that finds some sense in what had previously looked like empty horror. A meaning more obviously from the other side of the Resurrection, in the light of which it is now possible to view the crucifixion and understand it differently. To see it as the necessary and God intended means to a deeper and more wonderful truth that could not have been imagined without it. The shift that Hosea and Jeremiah made with respect to the Wilderness wanderings. It’s a shift which if it’s not made, may leave you still in the wilderness, still at the foot of the cross, reluctant to leave a familiar place behind and to step out in trust in a God Whom you have learnt will carry you forward somewhere new.
Exercises that explore the ‘via negative’
There are prayer exercises that you can use, which will begin to awaken you to the ‘via negativa’ before you find yourself called fully into it, and which may resource you whilst you are there. Some of them overlap a bit. Don’t try any exercise that you don’t feel ready for. You might even create some of your own.
- Recall a time like this that you experienced some time ago, long enough ago for much of its power to be gone. Remember it in as much detail as you can.
- What precipitated it, if anything?
- Were you alone with this experience, or did anyone else share it too?
- What did it feel like at the time? What words might describe it?
- What sustained you through it? What kept you going?
- Who were the angels who appeared along the way, offering support and signs of the presence of God’s love?
- What did it teach you about yourself and about God?
- With hindsight, was there a gift within it for you?
You could sit quietly with your thoughts and feelings before God.
You could write your own Book of Job: your own version of that book drawing on your own experience.
Or you might like to write a letter to God about this experience, expressing yourself as openly and honestly as you can.
- Look back over your life, perhaps by drawing a life-line, beginning at your birth and going through until today, and marking on it all the main events of your life. Note where these times of absence have occurred on your life line.
- Is there any pattern to them?
- Looking back at them, in the context of the bigger picture of your life, can you discern any purpose or meaning to them?
- Have they each been trying to teach you the same thing, or has the lesson been different each time?
- If you put the lessons together, do they have a shape and coherence to them?
- Draw another lifeline, and on this one mark all the significant moments of failure in your life. Don’t be hard on yourself, but be honest and realistic.
- Is there any shape or pattern to your list?
- What was each inviting you to learn from it?
- Is there a pattern to the learning invitations?
Hold your moments of significant failure before God. Tell God about them. Write about them in the form of a letter if that’s helpful. Then be still before God and notice what God has to say about them and about you, if anything.
- There were times when the twelve disciples either didn’t understand Jesus, or misunderstood Him, or betrayed Him, or felt His absence.
- Make a list of some of those times that you remember from the Gospels. It’s best not to use a Bible for this exercise. Trust your memory. Your memory is the guide you are looking for here.
- Make a second list of similar moments in your own life. Again you might want to put them on a life-line.
- Put your two lists side by side. Do they speak to each other? Are there parallels or overlaps between your list and your Biblical list?
- Be silent before God with your thoughts from this exercise. Don’t try to excuse or justify yourself to God. Simply be yourself as someone who often fails, and be there before God.
- Make a list of the things that you once believed but no longer do. Take your time over this, and when you have finished put your list to one side.
- Make a list of the things that you are not certain about, about which you are a bit agnostic. Again, take your time, and when you are finished put your list to one side.
- Make a final list of the things that you know you believe in: that you feel quietly confident about. Take your time.
- Is this last list enough?
- Supposing that it’s all you have right now, what sort of faith might you be able to build on it? Where do you sense that it is calling you? What supports will you need?
- Make a list of the images of God that have been important to you during your life so far. When you’ve finished, put the list to one side.Make a second list of the images of God that are important to you now. Put the list to one side when you have finished.Face God with no image at all.
- There is an apparently universal longing for an authority parent figure, which can be triggered by almost any authority figure, a pop star, a doctor, a priest, a teacher etc.Make a list of all those who have been such authority figures for you during your life. You might want to plot them on a life-line. Then name them to yourself, and put each one aside.Let go of these authority figures, and be alone by yourself before God.
There is an authority figure, who is uniquely your own inside you, given you by God at your creation. Be aware of him/her. Perhaps give them a name.Ask God’s blessing on them, and be aware of their presence with you always.
- There are five lessons we need to learn if we are to grow as human beings. Spend a little time which of these lessons, and wonder what you have learnt and what remains.
- Life is hard and frequently unfair. You will get hurt.
- You are going to die. You will have to let go of everything you have.
- You are not that important. Life will continue without you.
- You are not in control of your life. You are relatively powerless.
- Your life is not about you. You are a fragment of something much bigger.
- There was recently an exhibition in London of photographs taken of patients in hospices in Germany. There was one picture taken while each person was still alive, and a second picture taken immediately after their death. The two pictures were set side by side, with a brief commentary by a writer who had spent time with them, describing the person’s feelings about life and their imminent death.Look at yourself in a mirror. Imagine what your face will look like when you have just died. Hold the two images side by side. Write your own brief commentary on your feelings about life and the prospect of your death.
Be silent before God with your thoughts.
- St Francis of Assisi wrote of death as his “sister”: “Sister Death” he called her. Take a walk with your sister death. Tell her what you would like her to hear. Listen to what she might have to say.Imagine her with you always. There used to be a fashion for thinkers to have a human skull on their writing desk to remind them of their own mortality. Imagine one on yours. Or wonder why that might be such a difficult thing to do?Try living in the presence of death. There is a lot of it about, but it often remains hidden.How might “death” become a sister or a friend?