When I was a young man, there was a time in which I felt so distant from God that I took up an invitation to make a personal retreat in a prayer cabin in the Ontario wilderness. I stayed there for ten days and prayed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
It helped prepare me for my eventual vocational decision. I sometimes think of that experience when I think of Jesus going into the wilderness.
Before doing any active ministry, he prepares himself by spending forty days in the desert. For the same reason religious communities have a time of novitiate, and seminaries have their spiritual year.
It’s why all Christians take time for retreats. In these instances, we are simply imitating Christ by going into deserted places and spending one-on-one time with God.
What happens in the desert? The Gospel tells us that Jesus “was with the wild beasts and the Angels waited on him.” Jesus goes to dwell among the animalistic and the angelic.
Every human being, as the Church Fathers held, is like a universe unto himself. We are part animal and part angel, a composite mix of body and soul, matter and spirit. We alone in creation can span the natural and supernatural, and in the human person the two spheres meet. We are called to enact a harmonizing of these two dimensions.
Consider how body and soul can come together in us. When we listen to beautiful music, for example, a choir singing sublime hymns in exquisite harmony, what happens? There are some very physical things taking place: breath is forced through throats and mouths. At the same time a spiritual event is happening, as the music raises our souls and inspire our hearts.
Or think about the Olympic games, when a couple dances on the ice, their graceful interplay and their very complementarity reflecting something beautiful. Their physicality, in its pursuit of integration and harmony, brings about spiritual awe.
Seen in its contrary form, we are all aware that we are marked by the lack of harmony that is caused by sin. Sin, in fact, comes from the German word “sunde” from which our word “sunder” comes.
Sin always involves a sundering or separation or division. One of the marks of sin is the division of the physical and the spiritual, the fragmentation of our minds, wills and bodies.
Jesus forty days in the desert begins with that mysterious mention of his being among the beasts and with the angels. He himself is to become the reconciler of nature with the supernatural. He himself, as both man and God, is their bridge. He is the knitting back together both Creation and Creator.
Let us go into whatever wilderness we can, and wrestle there. And then we will be ready for whatever mission of reconciliation awaits.