A contemporary monk was asked by a group of retreatants who had come to his monastery what recommendations he could make for the observance of Lent. He replied, “To live in today’s world as a faithful person is enough of a discipline. There is no need to take on more.”
To remain a person of faith and hope is a daunting task indeed, given the present chaos of our world and the ongoing cycles of violence and disaster. It requires not only effort on our part, but also an open heart that is ready to receive the unmerited and strengthening grace of God, which comes to us in many forms and in frequently surprising ways.
We are helped here by calling to mind the experience of our forebears, the children of Israel. One of the enduring motifs of the Lenten season, and indeed Easter itself, is the journey of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
In order to move to a new place, the children of Israel had to let go of the known and enter into a season of unknowing, which, according to Scripture, lasted for 40 years. As they wandered through the wilderness, they experienced times of deep questioning. Why had they left Egypt? Though they had been slaves, at least they had known the security of a place to sleep and food to eat. Where were they being led? When would the journey end? “Have you brought us out here to die?” they accusingly asked Moses in their panic and uncertainty.
Though they murmured and complained, God did not leave them bereft of signs of God’s care and presence. A pillar of fire led them by night and a pillar of cloud by day. And, to eat, they were provided with manna from heaven, an unexpected and previously unknown source of nourishment. One of the properties of manna was that it could not be gathered up and hoarded against an uncertain future without becoming foul and inedible. It could only be gathered day by day, and there was no assurance that more would appear on the morrow. “One day at a time” became their rule of life.
For the children of Israel, their 40-year sojourn was a time of preparation. During these years, they were being shaped and formed and made ready to enter into a new reality, a new state of being, represented by the Promised Land.
The wilderness experience, therefore, was not incidental. It was part of God’s larger purpose. It was a time in which the people learned by experience what it means to trust and to hope in the midst of uncertainty. This was a lesson not only for them but their descendents as well, us among them as we move through Lent toward the ever-unfolding mystery of Easter.
In these days, so much that surrounds us speaks of despair and hopelessness. Desolation can so easily overtake us and mire us in a despondency that makes it difficult for us to look beyond the weight of the present moment.
St. John of the Cross speaks of the “dark night of the soul.” In such a night, our sense of God’s presence and of God’s loving care and purpose abandons us, and we feel utterly alone, wandering aimlessly in an inner desert populated by its own strange beasts and wild animals. Hope in such circumstances seems distant and unreal, and our ability to trust – to trust that indeed there will be manna on the morrow – is challenged.
And yet, it is only through pressing on when hope seems most absent that we discover manna in the wilderness. The manna that nourishes us each day takes various forms. It may come as an unexpected courage, resiliency or hope that carries us forward in spite of ourselves and our inability to rationalize or make meaning of what we are experiencing. Manna is another way of naming God’s grace, which is close at hand, though often hidden. God’s grace is ever present, even when we are unable to recognize it.
Here we need to be mindful that grace is given to us because God loves each one of us with all our quirks and singularities. God loves us not because we are useful but because love is God’s very nature. It is in our answering love that we discover who we truly are in the larger purposes of God.
God’s love is an inviting love that draws us out of ourselves into patterns of relationship with others in which love becomes the life-giving energy. In the drawing of this love, we are made members of Christ’s risen body, the church. In the drawing of this love, we are made members of the human community that spans the world and transcends all religious identities. In the drawing of this love, may we journey in faith and hope through the wilderness to the Promised Land.