True progress in the spiritual journey sometimes seems elusive.
It could be a case of one misstep into mortal sin. Or the accumulated weight of venial sins. It could be vast periods of soul-straining spiritual dryness. Whatever it is, the walk of faith can sometimes seem more like a string of setbacks, a roller-coaster of ups and downs, or a zigzag.
For all of us who have struggled in this and similar ways in their spiritual journeys, the story of the Exodus of the Israelites into the desert stands as the great encouragement. Consider this: the Israelites had just experienced their miraculous liberation from enslavement in Egypt and were headed to the Promised Land. God had parted the sea and rained food down from the skies. From a rock he drew water for them.
And yet, after all this, due to sin, the Israelites found themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years.
We know that, to some measure, their journey is a model for us—both in what not to do and what to do. This is evident is 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.
Lent is a particularly fitting time to reflect on the lesson of the exodus for our lives. For this season begins with a call to follow Christ Himself out into the desert, as indicated in the readings for the first Sunday of Lent, which feature Luke 4:1-13.
Now take a look at the map of the path the Israelites took on the Exodus (another good one can be found here).
In the center is the Sinai peninsula, which today is part of Egypt but then apparently was some kind of no-man’s land between the civilization of the Nile and the Promised Land. The peninsula looks something like an upside down mountain. Perhaps fittingly at the peak of this peninsula is an actual mountain, known both as Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai, where God descended as an all-consuming fire and delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses.
Now, note that several caravan routes cross the peninsula. Those are depicted as green and purple lines. One cuts through the middle of the peninsula in connecting Egypt and Arabia. The other hugs the Mediterranean coast as it swings up to what was then the land of the Philistines.
The path taken by the Israelites—traced out by the black line—is far away from the caravan routes. Instead of cutting across the middle or keeping along the coat of the Mediterranean, the Israelites take a big detour down the peninsula. And note that this is before their major rebellion and the consequent punishment of wandering in the desert. It is also here, in the midst of this detour that the nation of Israel—and Moses especially—encounter God at Mt. Sinai.
We often hear that there are three basic stages to the spiritual journey: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. Although no one who has any real understanding of these stages would suppose them to be easy, the number three can be a bit deceptive. In point of fact, there are many, many stages to the spiritual journey—even within that the traditional threefold division (as is well illustrated in this chart and outline).
The Exodus does well to remind us of this. In fact, in Numbers 33, all the various stages of the wandering in the desert over the 40-year span are meticulously recorded. One Church Father, Origen, went to the trouble of counting them all up to reveal that there are a total 42. In a spectacular blend of slavish literalism and the wildest of allegory, Origen interpreted them to represent the 42 stages of spiritual growth, providing an exposition of the meaning of each, based on its place name.
One need not embrace the hyper-allegory of Origen to draw out the basic lesson here that there are multiple stages to the spiritual journey—that is OK if it seems that our path is less a straight line than an enormous detour, or if it seems we have been wandering off course a bit. Yes, there is something wrong with you: it’s the curse of the Fall and the enduring tendency towards sin that results from it. But is a problem that is anticipated and comprehended by Scripture, which lays out a path for spiritual growth even for those who have gone astray.
It’s beyond our scope here to outline those paths to holiness, but some starting points include Origen’s homily on Numbers, which, while perhaps overly allegorical in terms of its biblical exegesis seems pretty solid in its moral theology. This exquisitely detailed chart and outline of the three stages of purgation, illumination, and unity in the spirituality of St. John of the Cross is another great starting point.
And the Book of Numbers itself offers a biblical account of the ongoing rebellion, forgiveness, and encounters with God in the desert.
And, of course, Lent itself has its own distinctive way of holiness: the Stations of the Cross, which are traditionally marked with prayer and reflections on Fridays.
map image: ThaThinker / Wikimedia Commons