Encounters in the wilderness
By Ray Waddle
Monk-writer Thomas Merton once
explained why the ancient Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert before they
arrived in the Promised Land.
It could have taken just a few
months to get there. Instead, they wandered for four decades in desolate
terrain, dependent only on God. This is what God intended.
“God’s plan was that they should
learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon
the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with him alone,” Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.
The experience of God-heightened
wilderness did not end with the Hebrews. Instead, it was a new beginning for
the world. The story seared itself onto the memory of Jews – and all humanity.
Ever since, believers of all sorts have regarded wilderness as a spiritual
geography for encountering and remembering God.
This crucial wilderness does not
have to be a Middle Eastern desert. It can be a lonely windswept landscape
inside the soul, where you find silence and somehow receive divine sustenance.
At such a moment it becomes possible to confront one’s own tiresome posturing
and accept the mercy of God.
Merton (1915-1968) lived at the
Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky. I visited
there for a few days nearly 20 years ago. It turned out to be a wilderness experience,
a memory I hold onto.
This was a silent retreat, and it
took a couple of days just to let years of turbulent emotions and excuses rise
to the light and be exposed and play themselves out.
There was nowhere to hide from them. I no longer wanted to hide. I kept a vigil
(and a notebook), slowly becoming aware that a soul (mine) needed air and
sunlight and now was getting some. The news of God drew near in a new way.
I have carried that revelation
since – not as a hankering to get back to a monastery but a confidence that
such abundance is reachable in daily life, because the soul is real, and it
accompanies our every move, and it registers the pain of each misstep, and it
surges with life when the grace rains down.
There’s another sort of
wilderness, of course – the familiar kind that assumes a godless horizon, a
sneering pretense that reduces everything to money or power. It’s an atlas of
A long echo of memory defies
that: the daily wilderness is an adventure toward the light. “We are living in
a world that is absolutely transparent,” Merton fiercely declared, “and God is
shining through it all the time.”
Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.