Friday, May 22, 2009


While the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, a scouting party which included Caleb and Joshua was sent to scout the land of Canaan. They reported back to Moses and Aaron, bearing some samples of the giant bunches of grapes and other produce they had found in the land, but warning, too, that they had also discovered that the Promised Land was inhabited by powerful giants.

On hearing the much exaggerated reports about the giants the Israelites became afraid and complained,
"Why is the Lord bringing us into this land only to have us fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will be taken as booty. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt? …Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt" (Num. 14:3-4 NAB).

In response to this display of faintheartedness Yahweh expressed his anger:
According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die. And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report about the land— the men who brought an unfavourable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord. But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh alone remained alive, of those men who went to spy out the land. When Moses told these words to all the Israelites, the people mourned greatly. (Num. 14:34-39)

So now the Israelites were filled with remorse and decided that they needed to fix things between themselves and God. They decided that they were going to show their courage, and, ignoring God's announced plan to use forty years of wandering to form them as a people, they announced to Moses that they were now going to invade Canaan right away:

They rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, ‘Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.’ But Moses said, ‘Why do you continue to transgress the command of the Lord? That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will confront you there, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.’ But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, even though the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, had not left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah. (Num. 14:40-45)

In practical terms their plan had been logical enough: Their proposed shortcut northward into Canaan would have considerably shortened the time they would have to spend in the wilderness; but it was doomed to failure, because they were trying to rush God's timetable. God still had a lot to teach them-- and his plan required that they spend many more years in the desert. Predictably, as we just heard, the impatient Israelites were soundly thrashed by their enemies. The mistake the Israelites had made was trying to take back control from God, trying to live according to their own agenda instead of the Lord's.


Sometimes we too wish a certain painful or uncomfortable situation would end; but it turns out that God has a different plan, and needs us to spend some more time in the wilderness. We would do well at that point to remember the misadventure of the Israelites who got impatient with God's plan and tried their own.

This is a good place to say a word about the so-called "vocations crisis" that so many Catholic religious communities and diocesan seminaries and are experiencing. The statistics are staggering, of course, and the phenomenon of the decrease in new entrants to the religious and priestly life is too evident to need further description. However, our look at the "wilderness experience" of the Israelites might suggest a useful perspective on this so-called "crisis." A typical remark might be, "We used to have 400 members in our religious community and now we have only 150!" There sometimes seems to be an underlying assumption behind such a statement, namely that 400 was and still is the "best" number, and that God must still be calling people to come and join but they are all refusing.
But is it not possible, indeed probable, that in fact God has something new in mind for us? Could it not be that the diminishing numbers of new vocations in our religious communities and seminaries and churches is God's way of calling us into the wilderness? It seems pretty obvious that like it or not we as a Church, as religious communities, and as individuals are fast moving into uncharted territory, and heading toward an uncertain future. Let us learn from the mistakes of our Israelite ancestors about how to conduct ourselves while we're in the wilderness. After reading the passages from Numbers cited above we can hear our Israelite forbears encouraging us and saying, "Don't make the same mistake we made: Don't lose your nerve! Trust that God is still taking care of you!"
The Lord seems to need us to walk a wilderness road right now (see post "Meeting God in Troubled Times", 3/20/09) into unmapped expanses, depending on his faithful love and divine goodness to supply our every need, to satisfy our hunger, to slake our thirst. It takes real trust to be willing to live with God's schedule instead of our own. The challenge is the same for us in our own wildernesses, whether of declining numbers in our parishes, seminaries and religious communities, or during the financial hardships in the present economic downturn, or in our own personal trials of body and spirit: We must continue to believe that God will indeed provide adequate nourishment for us in the manna of hope, in the manna of our Christian living, in the manna of loving service with which we feed one another.

This last aspect seems especially important right now: we each need to be manna for one another, feeding each other as we make our way as God's faithul people through the present Wilderness toward the Promised Land.

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