The Loneliness of Saints
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Matthew 3: 13-17, 4:1-11
From time to time, as I ride the subway up work in the Bronx, I would see nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, a community founded by Mother Teresa, who, long before she died in 1997, was dubbed “the living saint.” The sisters have a convent up there in the South Bronx where they house the poorest of the poor and feed the hungry of our city. In the recent past, someone gave me a collection of Mother Teresa’s writings. I was prepared to see in them a great woman fired with compassion and love for the poorest of the poor, ignited with a passion and zeal for social justice and sublime holiness of life. In fact, she was all these. But, what really surprised me rather unexpectedly was that Mother Teresa had suffered great spiritual trials. For most of her life, she suffered a great sense of spiritual emptiness, an aching “loneliness” for God who, to her, seemed largely silent, and absent, and who- she felt- did not like her and had perhaps abandoned her. Only God, her closest spiritual confessors and ecclesiastical superiors knew what she called the “terrible darkness within” - hidden to the world by her smile and cheerfulness, and calm appearance. The book described the interior spiritual landscape of her soul that could be likened to a dry, empty and arid desert. Consider her words: “The place of God in me is blank- There is no God in me- when the pain of longing is great. I just long and long for God – He does not want me- He is not there. God does not want me- Sometimes- I just hear my own heart cry out –“My God” and nothing else comes- The torture and pain I can’t explain…” Yet, she did not give up on God, and endured this long dark night of the soul without bitterness. She challenged herself to believe that though God seemed hidden and silent, God was at work in her life. Her spiritual desolation did not detract from her work, and by her life and example, millions had been blessed. How could it be that this daughter of God now destined for the sainthood could also experience such a profound spiritual desolation?
Today, the Gospel story begins with a glorious scene. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, and as the Gospel story says, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” What a glorious scene, indeed! But what comes next is particularly troubling: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts…” Wilderness in the Scriptures is a barren, arid and dry place, a void, and a place where no life grows or thrives. It is a place cut off from life, a place inhabited by demonic forces. It is a scary place, a place of chaos. It is a place of wandering, of restlessness, and exile, not of peace and stability. In the wilderness, Jesus found himself in a rather hostile territory where he felt alone, vulnerable and unprotected; there he encountered the possibility of death by suffering from hunger and thirst. In that place, he came face to face with Satan himself who tempted him to give up on God altogether and to rely on his own resources, or worse, to rely on Satan.
We are all God’s children, and in Baptism, God publicly acknowledges each one of us as his beloved child. Yet, as in Jesus’ case, likewise, our Baptism offers us no guarantee of a life devoid of suffering. We often find ourselves in the wilderness. All of us have our own wilderness experience. Perhaps some of us have gone through several wilderness experiences when we feel on edge, our feet not firmly on the ground (so to speak), or when we feel like God seems far away. Perhaps such wilderness experience come during a life-threatening, or serious illness, the death of a loved one, the demise of a relationship, failure, financial collapse, our unfulfilled dreams, to name a few. Our Baptism offers no respite from struggles of life. Like Jesus, we are thrust right there in the wilderness of life. I do remember a time not so long ago when I felt like God set me off on a boat that drifted far away from him. I just could not understand why God allowed that to happen. Prayer was a struggle and times of prayer were excruciatingly painful. Yet, I challenged myself not to give up on God even though it seemed like God has given up on me; and my only consolation was a prayer from the Psalms (119 v16) which I cried silently: “Sustain me according to your promise that I may live, and let me not disappointed in my hope.”
The Gospel story nevertheless contains in it a seed of hope. The Gospel states that in that wilderness, Jesus was not alone. God sent his angels to minister to him. Remember the story of Moses. When God empowered Moses to liberate the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, they did not enter the Promised Land, but first, they wandered in the dry and arid place of the wilderness for forty years where they often felt abandoned by God, and tempted to give up on God and worship other gods. Yet, the story goes, God was in the desert with them. God was not just in the Promised Land waiting for the Israelites to arrive , nor was God left behind in Egypt. He was there in the midst of the wilderness even if the Israelites failed to perceive his presence many times. The Good News and the challenge of the Gospel today is to believe that when we are in the midst of our wilderness, God is there working silently and hidden in our midst. One of my favorite books is by a Franciscan Friar, John Michael Hanvey, Prayed Out: God in Dark Places. It is his honest testament to his rather fragile faith in the midst of his brokenness. He tells of how his life began to unravel and disintegrate right after his priestly ordination, and how he could not understand why God allowed him to pass through such spiritual wilderness- a nervous breakdown, a loved one committing suicide, his struggles with the brokenness of the Church, his alcoholism, and depression to name a few. Yet, he refused to give in to despair and atheism even though as he says, he felt often “prayed out.” And as he began to get his life back together he boldly confessed his profession of faith not in form of the Nicene Creed but in these words: “God has been gracious to me; at one level I’m graced to be still alive. I don’t believe in luck, or in fate, but I do believe in a divine plan. Even though I cannot always make sense of my everydays and even though on some days I despair of myself, I know from faith alone, which of course is God’s grace, that there is a deep down purpose in every moment of every day. Like God, just because I don’t experience it, or acknowledge it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Being alive when he rather be dead or could have been dead made him aware that God has sustained him in the wilderness. In that wilderness, he also discovered his purpose and vocation: that is, to minister to people who were also in the wilderness, people on the edge of their wits. Only then can he say with faith: “Being unmade by God is about disintegration with a purpose.” His words might sound like a cop out but the Gospel today challenges us to believe that even when it seems that things in life are falling apart, God is in the midst of all that trying to work out his grace and purpose. But, can God give us a sign of presence in the wilderness? Yes and this sign is found primarily in the Church.
When you feel that you’re in the wilderness right now, and you feel prayed out, come to Church for at least three reasons: First, remember, when the Israelites in the wilderness felt abandoned by God especially when they had no food, God sent Manna from heaven. In the midst of the wilderness of life, I point you this Table where God send us our Manna, Jesus, the Living Bread, to sustain us and care for us in the desert. Here we see, here we behold, here we touch and here we taste God Himself.
Secondly, I point you to the Baptismal font where you received the Sacrament of Baptism. In the Book of Common Prayer, there is this statement: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” Meaning: The loving relationship God establishes with us and promises to us in our Baptism will never be dissolved or broken.” This Baptismal Font is God’s promissory note that he will always love us and be with us no matter what happens to us in life, for in Baptism, he promised that nothing could separate us from his presence and love.
Thirdly, look around you. Just as Jesus was ministered to by God’s angels in the wilderness, we are to be angels to one another, to minister to one another as we go through the wilderness of life. As we struggle through life, especially when our souls are plunged in lonely darkness, groping for the presence of God, Jesus is here present in each of us. Each one of us is a Sacrament of Jesus’ presence- given as a comfort to one another especially in the long lonely stretches of the dark night of faith. We are not meant to go through life’s desert alone. Here are angels with no wings but angels nevertheless.
©2018 Noel E. Bordador
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