Chapter Three: Heaven Begins Within You
Desert and Temptation
Like you, I know many people who look back on a time in their lives when they had very little and were forced to live much simpler lives, and they reflect, “That was one of the best periods of my life.” Maybe there is some romanticizing going. Usually, the truth is that times of scarcity can have significant moments of worry, doubt, anxiety, fear, and even anger about our situation. Poverty can be brutal.
But often in retrospect we can see that something deeper and truer was going on beneath the surface. What we might remember are things like those tender moments when a spouse or friend who shared in our life of scarcity snuggled up with us and reflected how wonderful our shared life was then. Or we remember the unexplained kindnesses and generosity of strangers during that time.
We might even reflect on wilderness times like 9/11, when death and destruction transformed New York City into an intimate community in which perfect strangers did whatever they could to care for each other. People around the world sent the message of embrace, “We are all New Yorkers.” Of course, we would eventually succumb to less noble impulses, and many peace-loving Muslims here and abroad paid the price. It seems that demons lurk in wilderness times, looking for opportunities to turn us away from our better angels.
But again, we can usually see in retrospect that hardship can have the propensity to bring out the best in us. In the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, neighbors who were formerly strangers check on each other, and neighborhood streets become places of kindness and hospitality, where folks gather to share food from their freezers. We all have our examples of how human beings tend to thrive in times of hardship.
Anselm Gruen points out that people went out into the desert in the 4th and 5th centuries, in part because they remembered that Israel experienced the wilderness as the place where God was nearest to them. Yes, there were temptations; the desert was known as the dwelling-place of demons. But “doing battle with the demons” or facing temptations without succumbing was a way to use that spiritual muscle of “returning” to God and their true life. Gruen writes:
Looking back on its history, Israel recognized the years in the wilderness as a privileged time. It was the time when God grew fond of Israel, took her in his arms, and drew her with the chains of love (see Hosea 11). And God promised Israel that he would lead her into the wilderness again, to speak to her heart. The time in the wilderness would then be a new honeymoon: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her" (Hos. 2:14). - Heaven Begins Within You, p. 37
Looking back on our own times of scarcity and hardship, many of us have no desire to return to those difficult days. Yet, we can remember that we had a feeling from time to time that something deeper and truer was going on then. We may have even found ourselves “attended by angels” in the form of friends, neighbors, or even perfect strangers. We ourselves may have been angels to others. (We can still be today.)
I have heard people look back on horrific times in their lives and say, “It was the worst time in my life. There’s no way I would want to go through that again or wish anything of the sort on anyone else. Yet, I wouldn’t change a thing. That difficult time attuned me to something important that I don’t think I could have learned in any other way.”
Some of you are going through a difficult wilderness experience now; God promised this would happen. And there will be days when all we can see is suffering and misery. Surely this is a reason many of us enter into silence – that place of stillness where God nurtures our souls in God’s first language. The desert monastics believed that our hardships and temptations can be catalysts for our returning to something deeper and truer that is always going on beneath the surface of our lives.
And when we do, we are sometimes able to sense – not just in retrospect but even in real time – that this desert period is in a strange way a privileged time. In one sense, we would not wish something like this on anyone. But in another sense, we realize that something extraordinary is going on: God is pulling us closer, embracing us, and speaking tenderly in ways we haven’t known before. And we have a sense that we could not have known this life-changing truth in any other way.