I said to myself in my good fortune:
“I shall never be shaken.”
O Lord, your favor had set me like a mountain stronghold.
Then you hid your face, and I was put to confusion.
-Psalm 30:7-8, Revised Grail Psalter
In a matter of two sentences, the Psalmist sums up a tremendously complex part of one’s journey of faith. At one moment, we can have a sense of certainty in the Lord, a perceived state of proximity to the divine that is so real that we can say, “I shall never be shaken.” Then suddenly, everything changes. It seems as though everything that we had once felt with such certainty is wrenched away and we are left with nothing in a state of confusion. Experiencing this does not make someone a bad Christian. In fact, one would be in company with Saint Teresa who — even in the midst of her world-renowned good and holy life — said, “When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul,” (Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta).
The first question comes as, “Why?” Is God somehow testing us by allowing us to feel this sense of abandonment? Are we at fault by not seeing things the way we used to? The answers to these questions, if there are any, would take many more words to explore than will be presented here. The focus will be on what to do when wandering in the Desert of Faith.
Sometimes, we can learn what to do by discovering what not to do. Perhaps the most classic example of what not to do while wandering through a desert, whether spiritual or physical, is from the book of Exodus where we hear time and again about how the Israelites, after they were delivered out of Egypt and sang praises to God, grumbled against him and against Moses, their leader. The first lesson we have from the Israelites experiencing their journey through the desert is to trust that God will fulfill his promises.
How quickly do we lose heart and feel abandoned just like our spiritual forefathers in the desert? It can be difficult to see the end of the road when all that lies before you is hot sand in an empty, barren, inhospitable, and God-forsaken land. Just because the route ahead seems difficult and foreboding doesn’t mean that the end will not be good. In fact, by the Cross of Christ, we are shown that a long and arduous path given to us by God– a bitter cup, as it were — will most assuredly lead to freedom, to happiness, to the promised land, to salvation. For the Israelites, there were no easy ways to the land of milk and honey. For us, there is no easy way to heaven, our eternal Promised Land, but we must trust that the road laid out for us, albeit a challenging one, will bring us to our ultimate peace.
Now, we’ve all heard this a million times. Yes, we should always trust God and know that what he says is true, but that’s an easy thing to say and a really hard thing to live. So what do we do? Let’s look at another example. After the Israelites lament their lack of food in Exodus 16, the Lord says to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day.” Can you imagine that? Two things: first, what a testament of trust this is. The Israelites are told to go and gather just what they need for the day and to trust that God will give them more tomorrow — and he does! Second, what an absolutely crazy thing to see. Think about witnessing the miracle of your daily food being laid before you as you get up in the morning in the middle of a wasteland; amazing! But then, in keeping with the theme of the excerpt from Psalm 30, the aura and glory of their heavenly food wear off. The Israelites say, “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna,” (Numbers 11:5-6).
What does this mean for us? In the same way that the Israelites received bread from heaven, we also witness the descent of the perfected form of this bread prefigured in the Old Testament every time we attend Mass. But how easily do we become complacent with such a miraculous gift? How quickly do we feel nothing about the Bread of Life presented in front of us in the Eucharist while we’re thinking about what we’re going to have for lunch?
We will not be enraptured with heavenly ecstasy at every moment throughout our lives; we will have to wander through the desert at some point. When we find ourselves wandering there, we should know that we are not alone and that we are not lost. We can reflect on the experience of God’s people spending decades in the desert and learn from both their mistakes and their successes.
It is most important to live in the sacraments and to trust in God’s providence. Let us not lose sight of the divine mysteries presented to us by the Church, most especially, the Eucharist which is the source and summit of our faith. When we find ourselves in the desert of faith, we should pray for God to guide us on our journey, to give us the grace to drink from the cup from which Christ drank for our salvation, and to grant us consolation according to his divine will.