Jesus in the Wilderness ~ desert warfare

“the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness … 

and he was in the wilderness forty days, 

being tempted by Satan …”

Mark 1:12-13

St. Mark relates that no sooner had Jesus come out of the water after his baptism, when “he saw the heavens torn asunder and the Spirit like a dove, descended upon him.” And when the Father’s voice rang out, “immediately afterwards,” the Evangelist goes on, ‘the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. Note the connection which the text seems to establish between the fulness of the Spirit resting on Jesus and his withdrawal into the wilderness. This is a mystery that affects the Hermit more than any other.

The word pronounced by the Father was a word of love: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased. The Spirit given was the Spirit of Love. Christ’s withdrawal into the wilderness was a loving response to this word, this gift of love. The Son of God had no need to prepare for the apostolate. But his human nature, most particularly at his overwhelming moment, aspired to be alone with his Father. Guardini was right in thinking that the Spirit, ‘forced him out into the wilds, far from the dear ones, far from the people on the banks of Jordan, somewhere where there was no one but his Father and him.” 

You may not have experienced the action of grace leading you to the hermitage quite as clearly as this. Sometimes a set of quite profane circumstances seem to be responsible, seem to push you, rather than your being in command of them. Not you, but someone else, the Holy Spirit, is in control, making all these factors cohere to bring you here. He it is who has ‘forced you our into the wilds.’ You can only give one possible response: loving acquiescence; perseverance in the desert permits no other, Pope Pius XII said this clearly:

‘Not fear, not penance, not prudence alone peoples the solitude of our monasteries, but love of God.’ 

Pope Pius XII Address to the Congress for Oriental Monastic Studies, April 1958.

It will not take you long to fix ungenerous limits to your acts of atonement; the spirit of the age sets its face against protracted mourning. Insatiable for love, it exults in its own abilities. Yours however is the right to free your mind and heart from the contingencies of worldly life, to apply all their resources to eternal truths, to Truth Supreme, God who is ‘light’ and ‘love’. 

Do not however expect to be at rest straight away, Jesus, despite his purity and holiness, imposed a superhuman fast on himself, symbolically portraying the struggle which you will have to wage to establish the calm supremacy of all the virtues in you. He confronted the Devil face to face and overthrew him, to warn you of the ensuing battles that await you, and to teach you how to be victorious. You will build the rampart of your soul with your trowel in one hand and your sword in the other. It is longer, harder work pacifying your soul than you may think. Between the ‘sincerity’ of your efforts and the ‘truth’ of your renunciations is a great guilt; it will now be long before you learn this to be so. 

Lone monk on desert walk at sunset outside walls of his monastery (© daveweidlich)

You are going into the desert, not with Jesus’s innocence, but with the essential corruptness of your nature, made worse by the distortions and wounds inflicted on it by your habits and sins. You have broken your links with the world, not by tearing up pieces of paper, but by slashing into living matter, and the vigorous stumps of your affection have not yet stopped sprouting. You will often be tempted to feel sorry for yourself. Inflexible fidelity to obedience will save you. 

The Rule under which you fight will be your great purifier and pacifier, even if it seems as remorseless as a rolling-mill. It will impose an absolute fast on your self-esteem, whatever form that may take, and will gradually re-establish the hierarchy and harmony of all natural and supernatural virtues in you. Order assures peace of mind: this is what St. Augustine called ‘peace.’ The hermitage promises you this, while warning you that it is an armed peace, and that lack of vigilance, energy or prayer can put everything in jeopardy. Our peace is precarious because within us we bear both the foes that threaten it and the accomplices betraying our defences. Yet it is already something, to have put a distance between your passions and their objects. Take heart, our ‘actions, which governs not only our outward actions, but the inner attitude with which we perform them,’ writes Jesuit Fr, Yves de Montcheuil. The renunciations which seem to cost so much today will, if you make them generous-heartedly, loose their initial bitterness. Charity as it grows will one day make you love what seems repugnant now, while dry and needy faith is still more powerful than love forgetful of self-satisfaction.

The devil is no myth, and if it is going too far to see him in your every temptation, the entire monastic tradition agrees in ascribing a particular fury against anchorites to him. The desert was reputed, as witness the Gospel, to be the very place which he inhabited; and the monk, taking a hazardous offensive, did his best to dislodge him. St. Matthew makes an explicit connection between Jesus’s withdrawal into the wilderness, and temptation:

‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.’ 

Matthew 4:1

Awareness of your habitual weaknesses, past experience and the particular painfulness of certain sacrifices should all alert you to the struggles which are to come, The desert offers a number of classic struggles, which you will find hard-pressed to win against; the desert’s own excellent qualities provoke them. It is often bewilderingly hard to fight these insubstantial, hence invulnerable, inner monsters. 

Solitude shelters you from the world’s attempts to pervert you. Not seeing, not hearing, not smelling, not touching sets you deep in a zone of relative safety. But a danger awaits you: that turning in on yourself which gives rise to an eccentric sensibility, a sort of undue exacerbation of the emotions and imagination, by which disproportionate importance is attached to the most trivial things, thus threatening you with the perils of obsession. Inner ordeals blow up, the puerile objects of which trouble your peace and cause much suffering. Were you beading the active life, you would shrug your shoulders and that would be that. In the desert, these phantoms will keep on harassing you endlessly. God can use this susceptibility to suffering as a means of purging your soul. But the devil with his wiles can profit from it as well. Opening your heart to an enlightened guide will save you from a danger to which some people, alas, succumb to: obsession, persecution mania, scrupulosity, various forms of melancholia. The ever discontented and the blasé are the inept victims of the sequestered life. Mystics are its most flourishing creation… 

The fast imposed by the desert on your faculties —the ordinary satisfactions of which normally safeguard human well-being and happiness— will make the primacy of the spirit triumphant in you. Your instincts however are indestructible and you will never be able to stop your heart and flesh from being moved. God is the architect of this structure: you must neither deplore nor try to wreck this praiseworthy arrangement. Mastering these instincts is a complex and diaphanous affair. 

Memory and imagination will go on provoking impatience with privation, and the devil has direct access to our senses. Not uncommonly, those most pure are prey to the least avowable temptations or to the mast desperate emotional attachments.

You must humbly accept, pray, maintain peace and trust. Resisting these impulses is a fine act of faith, hope and love; it is also one of the austerest forms of penance. Believe that this is the purifying crucible, into which scores of holy souls have been thrown: the lives of the Desert Fathers & Mothers will reassure you. The devil will lose a match if, instead of panicking, you calmly agree that you are only human, not an angel, and that you are going to God on foot and not on seraph’s wings.

Contemplation too, that most godlike act, the most perfect exercise of charity, can engender the subtlest temptations, at least at its first stage when it involves more acquisitions than infusion. Pride has no power over the genuine mystic: the intense activity of the gift of fear reduces him to powder. You cannot be a mystic for the asking. He who has succeeded, to quote St. Benedict, having subdued the vices of flesh and spirit, “by the lawful delight in the other-worldly realities for which he has forsaken all, in tasting and seeing how sweet the Lord is, may stumble into the snare of vain complacency and presumption. To him, the devil will suggest that he belongs to the “aristocracy” of the spiritual world and persuade him that, having passed the stage of apprenticeship, he can plunge uncontrolledly into the way of exceptional penances of, contrariwise, relax his rigour and let the reins go slack: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down!” Humility’s reply is easy: I cannot throw myself down, because I am not up. I should have to advance a great deal further in perfection for it to make any perceptible difference. What else can I do but go on trusting and obeying?

Guidance of the Holy Spirit

Obeying your guide, but obeying the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, who has led you into the desert. If you are genuinely a man of prayer, you are safe. What did Jesus do in solitude, not preaching, not eating, not drinking, possibly not sleeping? He contemplated. His whole soul was before God, all his powers deployed in contemplation, freed from every other sort of activity. The beatific light bathed his mind: his will burned with heavenly charity. The gifts of the Holy Spirit bore all the fruits in him. Disengaged from all earthly occupations, Jesus could give his prayer a scope newer to be exceeded again during his ministry.

Yours will be more modest and intermittent. Bur at least let the desire to be with God goad you as often and as intensely as it may. Tirelessly plead with him to give himself to you. Mystical prayer is part of your vocation as Christian and hermit. Ask for this favour, in peaceful humility accepting that it may be deferred or refused. Do your best to make yourself ready for the gift when God eventually bestows it.

You will do nothing but contemplate forever. The monk’s vocation is eschatological: he tries to live by anticipation as the blessed ones live. Shut off from the side facing earth, the desert’s only view is towards heaven. And the trail which you are following has no end, except in God. Be generous; not angels will draw near to server you, truly, I say to you, he [the Master] will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them.