The Call of the Desert
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says that after his conversion and baptism he went to "Arabia" (c.f. Gal 1: 17, 18). In his book, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, the Anglican writer, John Charles Pollock, speaks about this as a time of preparation for Paul. An early tradition suggested that he started preaching immediately in "Arabia," but this does not conflict with the idea that he intended to go into the wilderness, like Christ Himself, to pray, meditate and enquire of the Lord what the next step might be.
Pollock suggests the attractive scene of Paul, unable to contain his enthusiasm about Jesus, at a camp fire with his first convert, possibly a young Bedouin, sharing his meditations under the stars. Some modern commentators think it is likely that Paul’s main concern was to seek solitude in order to grapple with all that had happened to him since the episode on the road to Damascus. It is probable that back in Damascus he continued his meditations until he felt ready to seek confirmation of his calling from the community in Jerusalem. He could not have been forgotten so soon in Damascus, so it seems likely that he would have remained relatively quiet there on his return.
Traveling in this part of the world, even just skirting the wilderness, brings to mind the spiritual significance of the desert. Those who took part in the TLIG Pilgrimage to Egypt would have seen something of the Sahara in the distance. We also traveled through a wilderness area in which we saw signs of industry and military activity. The earlier pilgrimage to the Holy Land also brought us into the desert area on our way to the Dead Sea. But on this latest pilgrimage, we saw more of the wilderness for a longer time. Some of it is cultivated now, and there are signs of heavy industry here and there, but the sense of the desert remains. Parts of this area are found in the writings of T.E. Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia.
The desert region on the way to Palmyra, Fr. Michael, Vassula, Bishop Jeremias and Fr. Habibi
Desert of Palmyra, Syria
The desert is very important in the spiritual life. There are both negative and positive ways of looking at the desert and, in a way, we could say that the most positive meaning of all has to do with something negative. The desert is a place of purification and sometimes preparation. Those who begin to advance in the spiritual life are eventually called into a "desert experience" where they seek only God. There is a "negation" which is necessary to spiritual growth, and it is not just a movement away from material things, but a movement away from anything that we perceive as an obstacle to a deeper relationship with God. In this sense the desert has often been described as a "cleansing" place, where the mind is relieved of its clutter and the vision of faith becomes clearer. For some, a pilgrimage can contain something of the "desert" either because of some negative aspects which are nearly always present or because of the action of the Holy
Spirit who seeks to draw the soul closer to Himself. Sometimes a pilgrimage can be purifying; sometimes it is a preparation for something; for a deeper conversion, a further step along the road of discipleship, or a call to a deeper kind of prayer.
On pilgrimage, silence is not always easy to find, and yet, all too often, there is a call to silence in the midst of noise, checking in, worrying about luggage, and searching frantically for the dining room. Coming home could be a new beginning with prayer, but only if we are open to the Holy Spirit.
"Never replace Me; have Me first, face Me first and remain facing Me for ever; be like a mirror, a reflection of Myself, never seek others but Me, never seek your old habits of your earlier life; I am Holy and Lord, I and you are one now and I mean to keep you just for Myself and for eternity; humble yourself, learn from Me, desire Me only; breathe for Me; do not turn left or right now, keep going straight, beloved, allow Me to use you, hold on to Me, enrapture Me with your simplicity in words, simplicity infatuates Me, say to Me your words, let Me hear them again, tell Me "I love you Jesus, you are my joy, my breathe, my rest, my sight, my smile"
" daughter, were you given time to think and meditate you would please Me furthermore; you will from now on seek Me in silence, love Me in absolute silence, pray in silence, enter My Spiritual World in silence reward Me now, I love you; honour Me by giving yourself to Me, do not displease Me, be Mine beloved, speak!"
"How in silence Lord?"
"in silence looking at Me, I want you to stay still, without having interferences of any sort, seek Me in silence" May 31, 1987
Vassula’s reflection on Renunciation gave us an important theme for our pilgrimage:
"We are here, not only to follow the traces of the prophets of old, but to open a wide path in our mind and heart to see their perfect faithfulness they had towards God when He called them to reveal His designs to them: let us meditate while crossing these deserts on their self-renunciation, their self-denial, and become more aware of their untameable courage, zeal and love for God…God stripped them from all that was worldly so as to imprint in them His own Holy Image…Each one of us on this earth has been given a mission…there are those, who still do not put their hope in God nor do they trust Him but cling to what they possess and do not let go. Few are those who love God as in the first Commandment…The Lord tells us several times in the messages, not to fear this impoverishment that will not only set us free, but also set free movement of hope and ensure its opening out for the attainment of supernatural goods and of God Himself."
The full text of this address is on the TLIG Web Site, here. Perhaps we should read it again.
On the sixth day we set out for Jordan. On the way we stopped at Maaloula, an ancient Christian town where Aramaic is still spoken. This is a fascinating place, full of wonderful traditions and legends. One of the most famous landmarks is the monastery of St. Tekla or Thecla, a follower of St. Paul. She was an early convert to Christianity who broke off her engagement to devote herself to God. Her vengeful fiancé tried to kill her by various means, all of which were thwarted by divine intervention. The legend tells us that she hid in a grotto in the cliff around which the idea of the present-day convent was built. People from different religions come to the monastery/convent to gain blessings and to make offerings. The convent houses the relics of the saint.
Convent of Saint Tekla
Another landmark is the Mar Sarkis Sergius Monastery. It was built in the fourth century on the remains of a pagan temple. It was named after St. Sarkis, a Syrian knight who died in battle in the reign of King Maximanus in 297.
We were privileged to have Mass here on one of the oldest altars in Christendom. The altar itself had “horns” – prominent corners reminding us of the altar of sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. The sanctuary area is quite small and it was interesting to see how all the bishops and priests were accommodated. There is a wall with openings like a screen with "Holy Doors" so the people in the church could not see very much. The Christians of Maaloula are Greek Catholics. The chief celebrant of the Mass was Bishop Felix Toppo.
Mar Sarkis Sergius Monastery, St. Sergius and Bacchus Church
Altar, Mar Sarkis Sergius Monastery, St. Sergius and Bacchus Church
Outside of St. Sergius and Bacchus Church
We did not have much time to visit the city itself. We were told that the film director Mel Gibson had shot some of the scenes of the "Passion of the Christ" in this ancient place.
View of Maaloula
Leaving Maaloula we continued to Bosra where we ate, and then went on to the Syrian/Jordan border, passing through desert. By now the bus groups had become little communities and there were songs, prayers and some witnessing. Some friendships had been renewed and some new ones made. People were really getting to know each other, laughing, talking about their problems, talking about God and their experience with "True Life in God." Part of the pilgrimage was the blessing of being with each other, sharing the journey, the food and the prayers.