“Together” in the Wilderness of Solitude:
An Advent Exercise
“When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Matthew 14:13
Anyone familiar with the gospels will be familiar with the pattern. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, one finds the flow and ebb of Jesus’ presence with the people and his withdrawals into solitude for prayer.
In the story told in Matthew chapter fourteen, Jesus withdraws “in a boat to a deserted place” immediately after he has heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas the son of Herod the Great. It was a moment of personal agony, and arguably of vocational crisis, that drove Jesus into solitude this time. Earlier in the same Gospel, we are told that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after being baptized by John, though one may prefer the softer reading that he was “led” into the wilderness. (Matthew 4:1).
Again, and again, we find Jesus in desert places, or on a mountain, upon the water, in a wilderness, or in a garden. In such instances we find Jesus alone, in solitude, led or driven into an inner sanctum where he wrestles with temptation or seeks nourishment or comfort or direction.
What did Christ find in the wilderness? I wonder. And what did he take into it? In fact, the two questions may be connected.
In contemporary culture, many people endure alienation, loneliness, anxieties, and a nagging fear that their lives lack meaning. All the while, many of the same people pursue an existence of self-sufficiency, self-absorption and self-aggrandizement – immersing themselves ever more deeply in the illusions of self that produce their suffering.
They may seek relief from their sense of alienation and anxiety with regular doses of distraction, whether through the seemingly endless venues of entertainment or through various intoxicants of the body or the mind. The fact that one is religiously or spiritually inclined does not necessarily alter the picture, although the distractions sought by such folks may wear religious, spiritual or even Christian labels. A trip to the Holy Land can be just as much a distraction from what ails the soul as a trip to Antigua.
There is an entire ecclesial industry built up around the idea that the church exists to provide whatever numbs the soul or distracts the mind enough to get us back into the soul-depleting business of preoccupied existence week after week. The withdrawals by Jesus are pointed to as proof that we all need a spiritual refueling to keep up with contemporary existence. But the Gospels indicate that Jesus was doing something far more significant than just re-fueling for the next lap in a demolition derby.
On the basis of the evidence presented in the Gospels, it does not appear that Jesus found rest and relaxation in the wilderness, at least not of the sort that allowed him merely to enter back into the stream of an existence that pretended to be self-sufficient. Rather, Jesus’ withdrawals took him deep into a confrontation with his own absolute trust and utter dependence upon the being, love, reign and will of God. Jesus’ experience of the wilderness does relate to our own, but in a way that subverts our popular notions of the spiritual life as a filling station that gives us the energy to cope with an otherwise self-obsessed and soul-depleting existence. Communion with God calls into question business-as-usual, existence-as-usual, challenging us to reflect critically on the things we appeal to for meaning and depend on for security.
Thomas Merton, toward the end of his life, articulated an understanding of the relationship between prayer and life in a book, Contemplative Prayer, which was written primarily about the monastic experience but has lots to offer those of us who are not monks.
“Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face-to-face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the ‘consolation of prayer’ for its own sake. This ‘self’ is pure illusion, and ultimately he [or she] who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness.” [Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image, 1969/2014), xxxii]*
Jesus found in the wilderness of prayer his own emptiness and the trustworthiness of the God who sustains. Jesus found the faith to hang over “ten thousand fathoms of emptiness” (as Kierkegaard might put it), or the trust in God necessary to walk “in the groundless ground of being” (as Meister Eckhart might say). Or, to put it in a slightly different way, Jesus found God’s purpose for him affirmed and clarified and reaffirmed by God, sometimes against the onslaughts of the devil, sometimes in the midst of personal loss, terror and intimidation, and sometimes in the face of exhaustion and the ravages of his own human frailty. Jesus found all of this in the wilderness of prayer because of what he brought into that wilderness.
Jesus brought our humanity and God’s whole creation into the solitude of prayer and entrusted us, creation, and himself to God’s love. In this way, as in others, Jesus modeled prayer for us. We are not merely refueled in the wilderness of prayer only to enter again an existence that alienates us from God, but we are renewed in and through prayer by being given the heart of God for others and for the world around us.
In the wilderness of prayer, in that solitude and silence where we remove ourselves from all that distracts us and clutters our minds and keeps us from attending to the Word of God, we make the life of the world around us our primary concern. As Merton observes, freed from all distractions, we listen and we question, we try to gain clarity and discernment, and we expose ourselves “to what the world ignores about itself – both good and bad.” (Merton, Contemplative Prayer, xxxviii)
A Lenten Practice for Advent
As we enter into this season of Advent, a season of spiritual preparation that parallels the season of Lent (which is why purple is the liturgical color of both seasons), I encourage us to take the world of others into prayer with us, to invite the world and its needs into the wilderness of solitude as we draw near to God.
There are many ways we can do this, of course, but I would like to offer a practice that may seem a little surprising, though it is presented in the new (2014) edition of Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.
This practice of intercessory prayer, which beautifully reflects Jesus’ own teachings regarding prayer and love of others in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48; and 6:5-15), is actually provided by Merton’s Buddhist friend, Thich Nhat Hahn. It is a form of prayer, Thich writes, “practiced by all schools of Buddhism.” For a complete version of Thich’s “The Nine Prayers,” I will direct you to Merton’s book on contemplative prayer for the full text, but I would suggest for us as Christians to borrow one key idea from this practice. I encourage us in this Advent season to commit to offering our petitions not only on behalf of those we love and for whom we feel a natural affinity, but also for those beyond our circle of affection.
Understanding that the purpose of prayer is not merely to benefit the self, but realizing that we also are in need of clarity and direction from God, in each petition that we pray (whether we are petitioning God for health and wholeness, peace, joy or love, for forgiveness or grace), let us move from praying for ourselves to praying for particular individuals and groups of people. In each petition, following the example Thich provides, let us pray first for ourselves; then for a person we like; and then for a person we love. Next, let us pray for a person who is simply “neutral” to us (someone who is known to us but that is all, such as a teller at the bank or the barista who serves our coffee); and, finally, let us pray for a person “we suffer when we think of.”
By doing this, of course, we will find ourselves following Jesus’ teaching not only to pray for our “friends” but also for our “enemies.” In this practice, we can expand our prayers to offer petitions not only for ourselves and individuals but also for groups of people, following the same pattern as above: first praying for groups of people we like, then for those we love, next for those who are merely neutral to us, and finally for those “we suffer when we think of.”
In a sense, we are taking all of these people into the wilderness of prayer with us, in the knowledge that Christ, our Heavenly High Priest, bears us all into the presence of God as though our names were “carved upon his heart” (to quote my old friend Dr. Jeremy Begbie). This kind of prayer is time-consuming and demanding. It is also potentially transformative. It will be, I think, very difficult, if not impossible, to return from the wilderness of prayer with quite the same attitude even toward our enemies having prayed for them in this way.
As we draw toward the coming of Christ this Advent, let us determine that we will not arrive at the manger in Bethlehem alone, but with our neighbors, with those dearest to us, and those the very thought of whom causes us to suffer. We all need the love and grace of the Christ child. This we have learned in the wilderness of prayer.
*Thomas Merton, known as “Father Louis” at Gethsemani Abbey, died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968. There are still seventeen monks living at Gethsemani Abbey who served with Merton, including some who studied under him when he was Novice Master. Douglas Steere, opens his introduction to Merton’s Contemplative Prayer with a passage from the poet and mystic William Blake, who wrote: “We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
photos from Gethsemani Abbey where Thomas Merton was once a monk, by Michael Jinkins.