“THE WANDERING IN THE DESERT”
BY: FR. RICHARD ROHR, OFM & JOSEPH MARTOS
The Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years. They went around in circles and seemed to be going nowhere. Now and then they would find an oasis, a moment of relief, a place of life. Of course they would want to settle down and stay, but Moses would say, “No, pull up your tent pegs. We’re going to a new land. It’s out there, I promise.” Understandably, the people would object: “Why should we believe you? It was better back in Egypt where we had three square meals a day. We have nothing here.”
The temptation for anyone of us who starts out on the journey of faith is to turn back. We find ourselves saying, “It was easier in our old slavery. It was easier being bound by sins and lies. It was easier being an ordinary, middle-class American than walking the journey of faith.” We want to go back to Egypt as much as the Israelites did. But the Lord calls us to remember in the darkness what we once saw in the light.
Every so often at times like that, in the middle of our desert, God grants us a moment of transfiguration, a moment of Sinai such as Moses experienced. For us as for him it can be a moment of grace, a religious experience in which the Lord is undoubtedly real. But after a while, as always, we have to come down from the mountaintop and walk in the desert. Then, a few days or a few weeks later, it all starts to seem a bit unreal. We wonder whether it was just our imagination, and we start to doubt the memory of what we experienced shortly before. This is exactly what the Israelites did, and Moses has to remind them again and again that God’s love is not an illusion.
Still, the people complain that they are hungry: “If God is real, why doesn’t He feed us?” So Moses prays to the Lord, and the Lord replies, “I will feed them. But I will feed them only enough food for a day at a time. I will let manna drop from heaven, but they are to pick up only enough to feed themselves for one day.” Again we see the essential lesson of the desert, that the Lord wants us to trust Him continually, day by day.
Some of the Israelites, of course, still refuse to learn that lesson. They want to store up the manna, to save for tomorrow. But the Lord says, “No! Take only enough for today. I will give you your food every day.” It is with this in mind that Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
How that goes against our grain! We always want to plan for the future, to take care of ourselves. But the Lord invites us to stop worrying about tomorrow, to surrender control, to trust Him not only day by day, but even minute by minute.
The people who stepped out into the desert with Moses felt whole and strong, perhaps for the first time. You might expect that they would get stronger as they went along. But that is not what happened. Instead, they experienced weakness and weariness. There was division among the people. They discovered that they were not as whole and strong as they thought they were.
So often the same happens to us. When all of our idols are taken away from us – all of our securities, all of our defense mechanisms and safe explanations – then we find out who we really are. We are so little, so poor, so empty. In the desert the Lord takes our idols away from us, and we have to come before Him poor and humble. In that encounter we discover who we are and who God is for us. Then we can let the Lord be our salvation. It is not our work but His, from beginning to end.
Thomas Merton once observed that there are many people who leaveEgypt, but few of them ever enter the promised land. Most of us stop on the far shore of theRed Sea, afraid to step out into the desert. We have gone through the sea, the waters of Baptism, but now we sit there on the edge of the desert. We have experienced our dependence on God, but we do not want to experience total dependence on God – at least not at any real risk to ourselves. It seems that we can take only so much reality.
Just before they crossed the sea, Moses told the Israelites that there was nothing to be afraid of. And he told them what they had to do if they allowed themselves to be dependent on the Lord: “Have no fear! Just stand where you are, and you will see how Yahweh will save you. The Egyptians you see today will never bother you again. Yahweh will fight for you. All you have to do is keep still” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Today, those same words are directed at us: We need to let go of fear, to be still, and to let God be God. The Lord will do the fighting for us, and He will give us the victory. Our job is simply to keep still and allow Him to do the fighting. Like the Israelites, we need to put down our weapons of war, we need to put down our sword and shield and armor, we need to let go of our willfulness.
When they reached the other side of the Red Sea, Moses and the children ofIsraelsang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! Horse and chariot He has cast into the sea! The Lord is my strength, my courage, and my salvation. He is my God; I will praise Him! He is the God of my father; I will extol Him! The Lord is a warrior; Yahweh is His name” (Exodus 15:1-3).
There is one thing you should notice about this early liturgical song: It is pure praise. From beginning to end, it sings the praises of God. In contrast, enthusiastic praise is something that is almost entirely missing from our modern Church liturgies. We are comfortable with this kind of display of feeling. It does not fit in with our image of ourselves as proper and sophisticated. We resist it. We fight it. Why, we ask, does God need our praise?
The answer, of course, is that He doesn’t. Praising God is good not because God needs it but because it is a beautiful thing to do. The truly wonderful things in life are not the necessities but the useless gifts. The greatest beauty happens in the totally unnecessary exchanges between lovers. In the midst of self-giving, love happens. In the milieu of gift-giving, grace happens.
Those who would ask if God needs our praise might also ask if God needs our worship. But the answer is the same. God does not need us in church on Sunday morning. He is not happier after we have sat there for 45 minutes. Our worship does not change God, and it is not meant to. Worship, especially Eucharistic worship, is meant to be a time of mutual self-giving, and a time of mutual gift-giving, an exchanging of desire.
In Sunday worship we, who have slowly surrendered our lives all week, come together to celebrate that life-giving. We give ourselves symbolically to the Lord, giving up our self-sufficiency by confessing our weakness, giving Him our attention by hungering for His Word, seeing ourselves broken and poured out in the bread and the wine. In return, the Lord gives Himself to us, giving us His healing forgiveness, giving us the wisdom of His Word, giving us the gift of His personal presence in the Eucharist, liberating us for all of life.
In that mutual sharing, something beautiful happens, something wonderful happens, something happens that is both human and divine. Unless that happens, nothing happens. Unless that happens, you are bored. Unless that happens, the words of the liturgy make no sense to you and worship is nothing more than ritualism.
Nor is there any substitute for entrusting your life to God, for putting your present and your future in His hands. Fussing around with the externals of liturgy is no replacement for interior worship. You can try to turn people on with banners, guitars, processions, or what have you, but you are naïve if you believe in those gimmicks in themselves. Authentic worship is inspired by faith, not by frills.
That is partly the meaning of the golden calf, which comes later in the Exodus story. The Israelites lose touch with God, so they make a substitute which will help them feel religious. They bow down and worship something which is not God. They even get enthusiastic about it. But the truth is this: They have lost contact with the Lord; their excitement over the golden calf is just a cover-up for the divine-human interaction which is not happening.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We left the Hebrews on the bank of the Red Sea. At this point, they are very much aware of the presence and the power of God. They are in touch with who it is that saved them and how that liberation came about. And so, after they see the Egyptians defeated, after they experience the victory that God has given them, the Israelites “put their faith in Yahweh and in His servant, Moses” (Exodus 14:31). Notice it does not simply say they put their faith in God; they put their faith in God and in a human being just like them.
It is the same in our own day. Trust in the Lord has to go together with trust in other people. It cannot be just “God and me.” Our relationship with the Lord teaches us how to love and trust others. But it is also true that our faith in other people supports our ability to have faith in God. The two work together, and working together they form us into a community. That’s one reason why we call it a community of faith, and why we call our life together a faith life.
The faith life of a community is built on love and trust. In a Christian community it is built on faithfulness to God and to the others with whom we share the life of faith. The Israelite community was no different. They too had to be faithful if they were going to be a community, a people. The Ten Commandments, which are found in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus, describe in essence how the Israelites were to be faithful to God and to one another.
Taken from Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, THE GREAT THEMES OF SCRIPTURE – OLD TESTAMENT, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1987, pages 25-29.
Jakarta, 27 March 2012
A Christian Pilgrim