Lent has brought us unto the desert, and we know that the desert is a place of intensity. We are not surprised that it involves spiritual struggle (for such was the experience of Jesus). We’re not surprised to find ourselves becoming aware of things in our lives that must change (because we started Lent asking the Holy Spirit to show us some of them). So, intensity of repentance is part of the deal. But throughout the Scriptures and in the cumulative experience of the Christian community, the desert is understood overwhelmingly as a place of encounter with God. We ought to have entered Lent with a sense of expectancy that somehow or other, God would break into our lives afresh with his love and healing.
The following piece by Cardinal Leon Josef Suenens of Belgium (1904 - 1996), from "The Holy Spirit, Life-Breath of the Church", Volume I, pp. 71ff, expresses perfectly what this means. Well-known for his role at Vatican II, Cardinal Suenens later became a world leader of the charismatic renewal, interpreting it to the Church, (and, indeed, at times interpreting the Church to the renewal!) He was a close friend of both Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury.
For God there is no line of demarcation between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’. He crosses with ease the dotted line that marks our frontiers. In God the extraordinary is ordinary.
God does not love us with ordinary love, making some exceptions from time to time. No, the extraordinary love of God is part of his very being: our God is a God who is wonderful, even prodigal, in his love for men. The most astonishing proofs of his love – the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Cross – all go beyond anything we would expect or imagine. Scriptures tells us quite simply: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). This unbelievable gesture of love wells up from the depths of his heart, and overflows on mankind.
As we look upon it, such love takes our breath away. It goes beyond anything we could dare imagine and it makes us realize that God loves us to the point of miracle. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works I do, and greater works than I do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Such a promise should not surprise us: for God, the supernatural is natural; he is marvellous by his very nature. Our most condensed credo is contained in the words: “We ourselves have known and put our faith in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). This is why we dare believe in the power of prayer, because we have before our eyes the picture of Jesus, saying to his Father, even before he put his prayer into words: “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I know indeed that you always hear me…” (John 11:41-42). This ‘always’ is an integral part of our faith, even when our reason is shrouded in darkness.
We have to learn to discover this extraordinary love of God, hidden in a happening which is apparently, perfectly ordinary, completely accidental: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God” (John 11:40).
There are times when God pierces the obscurity of faith like a flash of lightning in the pitch darkness of the night. We may not always be able to put these experiences into words. Indeed they are well-nigh impossible to communicate: yet they are very real, and lives are transformed by them. Bergson once said: “God creates the world and overturns it to make saints.” And this action of God, whether hidden or apparent, continues all through the history of the Church.
It overpowered Mary at the Annunciation, when she suddenly realized she was blessed and chosen among all women.
It was there, on Easter morn, under the guise of a gardener, calling Mary of Magdala by name.
It filled with burning fire the hearts of the discouraged disciples on the way to Emmaus.
It unhorsed Paul and struck him blind on the road to Damascus. It whispered to Augustine: “Take up and read”, and thus changed his life.
It so illumined a verse of Scripture – as when a sudden ray of sunshine lights up and brings out all the beauty of a stained-glass window – that a Francis of Assisi took literally the words: “If you would be perfect, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor… then come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21).
It takes a thousand forms and changes a thousand times for each of us.
It is hidden in the gentle light or the glowing blaze, revealing to us our vocation or the mission entrusted to us.
It is hidden in the unexpected encounter with a friend at a crossroad saying, as did Ananias to Paul, the decisive word. A meeting no one could have foreseen but which confirms what a spiritual writer was not afraid to say: “If a man needs another to tell him ‘the necessary word’ God will bring that man to him from the ends of the earth.”
It pursues its aim under cover of what we call ‘haphazard events’, which are nothing other than God himself at work, directing secondary courses and what we call coincidences and chance happenings: all instruments of a love that is all-pervading, resourceful and steadfast beyond belief.
God writes extraordinary novels for those of us who are ready 'to play his game', willing to be open to the unexpected, on the alert to bear the whispers of grace and the promptings of the Spirit.
This experience of God, which is within the scope of every Christian, does not remove suffering nor quell the powers of evil - these are part of our earthly condition. The world is like a Rembrandt painting, a play of light and darkness. God comes to us, not as the Omnipotent One, crushing our human freedom, but as a Love, infinitely vulnerable in search of a free response.
Claudel said: "Jesus did not come to explain suffering nor to take it away . . . he came to fill it with his presence." Words with a depth of meaning. They do not, it is true, clarify the mystery of iniquity and evil. Nevertheless, they temper its darkness with the light of Golgotha. For there God showed that he is 'on our side' in our conflict with sin and suffering. These he has taken upon himself to make of them new elements of our redemption.
The discovery that God is at the very heart of suffering is, for many of the sick, a living experience in the face of which we can only marvel. Despite their pain, they smile, and their serenity sheds light on the lives of the rest of us. God is there in a special way, identifying himself with this suffering, in a way that only Gethsemane can explain. 'Ogni dolore è Lui', 'Every suffering is he' says Chiara Lubich, who founded the Focolare movement.