Recently I was running an evening of reflection in a suburban parish. At one point I asked the fifty participants to break into their small groups and discuss this question: "Where do you find your 'spirituality,' your relationship with God? (Where do you meet God most clearly or most often outside of church)?" As I walked around the room listening I was heartened by how easily and quickly so many people began responding: "In the beauties of nature, especially the sky and the woods." "In my grandchildren." "In certain events that show me that God's watching over me." Most of us, it seems, can find God fairly easily in the positive, pleasant, life-giving events of our lives. But the real challenge comes when we need to sense God's presence not only in good times but in difficult and even painful periods. Our Christain faith can be a real help to us in facing this challenge.
Finding God in Troubled Times
In these troubled economic times of ours when people are worried about their jobs, their budgets, and their retirement funds, it might seem quite a stretch to say that I've met God in the chaos and uncertainty of my present situation. I may wonder how God could possibly be involved in all of this pain and suffering. We can use, then, some help in encountering God in the midst of our difficulties and disappointments, our pain and our suffering: we need a spirituality for troubled times. Maybe after Easter I'll use this blog and try to develop such a spirituality more thoroughly, but for right now I want to suggest just one metaphor, one which fits perfectly with the Lenten season: the biblical image of the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Wilderness as a Metaphor
We all know the story of how, after the tenth plague in Egypt, Pharaoh at last consented to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to "offer a pilgrim-feast to the Lord." At that point Moses led them on a daring dash for freedom, through the Red Sea and out into the wilderness in what appeared to be a charge into the open jaws of death. In this wilderness there was little water and no food, only hostile tribes and poisonous snakes.
"Wilderness" translates the Hebrew word, midbar, which is sometimes incorrectly translated as "desert." My Hebrew dictionary says that midbar means "tracts of land used for pasturing flocks and herds; uninhabited land." The word conveys the sense of a land that is still wide open space, un-surveyed, unmapped, undomesticated by humans. The wilderness is land that is still relatively free of human control. In Exodus theology the wilderness represented divine presence, lack of human control -- and freedom.
In sharp contrast to the wilderness stood Egypt, which was very much under human control. In fact, the Egypt of the Pharaohs was famous for its order and neatness. So Egypt represented human rationality, human order -- and slavery. Thus in Israel's tradition the wilderness came to symbolize the unpredictable and unfathomable side of life, the mystery of God. This contrast between Egypt and the wilderness is crucial to a "Spirituality for Troubled Times."
There is another important dimension to the wilderness symbolism. In Hebrew thought, history is experienced as linear, not cyclical: it starts with creation and moves relentlessly toward its fulfilment. We individuals are born into that flow and are called to shape it by our decisions. We are moving onward with the flow of time toward the future. God gives us the future and we accept it from his hand. When Israel was called out of Egypt, she was also called out of the past and asked to move joyfully and trustingly into God's future. The wilderness, then, was not only a symbol of divine mystery but also a symbol of the future. Each of us is called, like the Israelites, into an unknown future; but if we don't know God's goodness or trust in God's love, we experience the future as a threat. On the other hand, if we trust in God's goodness and love, then the future is transformed from a threat into a promise. The wilderness as the unknown future is in a special sense God's preserve. This is surely another element of any "Spirituality for Troubled Times."