The three synoptic Gospels record that, prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he was led (or as Mark writes, driven) into the wilderness where the emphasis focuses around Jesus’ temptation. But we are not sure what this really means.
Is it about formation? Is it about identity and recasting and repeating the tribulations that Israel endured but Jesus rendering the example of perfect obedience? The symbolic numbering gives us clues, but we are still just stabbing in the dark.
On an experiential level we might all have had a wilderness time (or times!), whether intentional or not, forced or not. A time when we wrestled and struggled, clarified and reframed. A time of deep existential question when we were confronted with the reality of who we are. Last week on my retreat was such a wilderness time for me. It was an intentional determination on my part (and maybe I was led?) to self-observe and learn again the clues for peaceful living. It was a 10 day silent meditation retreat where I took a microscope into the deeper parts of myself, mentally and spiritually, and applied a technique of meditation that created an opportunity to observe the deep places of unrest that hold me back from being content and contained. It was a rigorous retreat, each day commencing at 4.30am and ending at 9.00pm, where all I did really was eat, sleep and meditate. During meditation I had to remain still, with my eyes closed. Noble silence was paramount for each participant – I was one of over 100 men and women – for the entire retreat.
And one striking thought became very apparent for me how much of the time I spent in darkness, my eyes always closed.
I am prodded by what one Christian mystic wrote in the latter half of the 14th century about contemplative prayer based around darkness. The work is called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and the underlying message suggests that to know God is to abandon all sense of trying to understand the nature and identity of God and to enter into the realm of ‘unknowing’; to seek God not at an intellectual level but at an experiential level, to seek God not through knowledge but through intense contemplation in the realm of unknowing, where it is dark. There, in the darkness of our souls, ‘we pierce God’s cloud of unknowing with darts of longing love from our hearts’, and there in the depths we can glimpse and experience the deep nature of true vibrant love and light that is God. I remembered I became a Christian when, as a boy on a school camp, I experienced a deep love envelop me. And I have thought about that love, I have studied it, wrestled with it, abandoned it even, but it has never left me. That love was Sacred Presence. And I sense it has guided me all my life, not protected me or shielded me, but led me, inspired me, prodded me. I am more open to it now, to be shaped by it, and this retreat helped anchor its importance in the healing of my life as an everyday pursuit. And to remember that in life there is often a wilderness we need to cross to find the promised land.