The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Grace along the way

"The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness.
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
there is hope for your future, says the Lord.”
Jeremiah 31

NOTE: The following is an extended excerpt from the introduction to my new book (shown above), Grace in the Wilderness: Reflections on God's Sustaining Word Along Life's Journey. The book, being published by Abbey Press' Path of Life Publications, will be published at the end of November. Primarily, it is a thematic collection of adapted posts (from this and my previous blog) from 2009 to 2013, reflecting on scriptural passages during the liturgical year. -- Br. Francis

You are not alone. Whatever the circumstances may be and no matter how you may feel at any given moment, no matter what you may have done or failed to do, no matter how painful or hopeless things may seem, one thing is certain: God is with you. There is hope for your future.
This is the promise of God’s Word to us. Wherever we may be physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually, God is prepared to meet us, journey with us, and lead us out of the wilderness. The route may not be the one we would have chosen for ourselves, but grace ultimately guides us toward joy, gladness, purpose, reconciliation, and redemption beyond anything we can imagine. Crooked lines are made straight. Along the way, we need only to put our faith in the voice that softly whispers in our hearts, as it was proclaimed to a dispirited people by the prophet Haggai: “Take courage, all you people, says the Lord. I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Haggai 2:4-5).
This is grace in the wilderness, as the prophet Jeremiah wrote so long ago to give the exiled Israelites hope, evoking the memory of an even earlier time when God led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. It is essentially the same message of hope and transformation declared by all the prophets, and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who was crucified for us. This magnificent manifestation of God’s love for us—for you—is the point of Scripture, with Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost providing the exclamation point.
The reflections in Grace in the Wilderness simply retell this story or forward the message. Unfortunately (sometimes tragically), Scripture is reduced to a moral code of conduct, a narrow-minded justification for various causes, or a blanket of sentimentality with which we insulate ourselves. But life is messier than that. Inspired by God, the Bible was written by human beings who lived,  struggled, and died amid the same perplexities and contradictions in life in which we find ourselves today. Modernity only gives them a new face. In one way or another, and at one time or another, we are each lost and need to be found. We wander in the wilderness. We seek—through various things, behaviors, or relationships—the rest that only God can provide. We seem to be abandoned. We mourn and sorrow. We weep, and our eyes are filled with tears.
Where is God? Right there— not up in the clouds or in some vague event too distant to consider; not in a false sense of security or certainty. Paradoxically, we find grace in the wilderness—redemption in the crucifixion. With the eyes of faith, we can see (albeit dimly) God’s sustaining presence in the midst of all that would seem to deny it. The late 19th- and early 20th-century French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel sums it up nicely: “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.”
God does not cause suffering or justify the human malfeasance that ultimately gives rise to it. In the person of Christ, the Good Shepherd, he comes to redeem what was lost and release what was imprisoned. He comes to rebuild what was destroyed, to reunite what was scattered, and to regenerate what had seemed lifeless. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
In other words, your life at this very moment has meaning—if you allow that meaning to unfold within it, that grace to take root in the wilderness.
Viewed as a whole, this is the promise of Scripture, and the good news I hope to convey through the collection of meditations in this book. The fruit of my own prayer, study, and reflection, they are primarily gathered from posts on my personal blog (first,, and, later, from 2009 to 2013. Although most were written with a view toward the liturgical year in the Roman Catholic Church and its cycle of readings for Mass, they have been adapted and arranged thematically in the book under the general sections: Grace, Prayer, The Body of Christ, Conversion, God in the Moment, Christian Life, Faith, Hope, Love, Peace and Joy, and Redemption and Resurrection.
As we know from the New Testament, St. Paul is perhaps the world’s most renowned beneficiary of grace: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” he writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:19-20). “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” His conversion from persecutor to apostle led to the rapid spread of Christianity in a way that could not have been foreseen. While this work was immensely fruitful, it was far from easy.
Whatever trials and obstacles he encountered in the wilderness of his own life (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-30), Paul seemed to have an intuitive sense of what grace is and what it means. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he wrote to the Galatians (2:19-20). “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Grace is God’s very presence among us and within us, in the midst of all that would seem to argue against it. Jeremiah sought to bolster the hope of the Israelites after the fall of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. Their Temple destroyed and their homeland taken from them, they seemed to have lost absolutely everything as captives in a foreign land. The prophet’s statement, writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in his Commentary on Jeremiah, “makes an allusion back to the wilderness sojourn in the ancient days of Moses, when God surprisingly gave sustenance in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:12; Jeremiah 2:2). At the same time, however, ‘wilderness’ is a reference to contemporary exile, so that the assertion not only remembers surprising graciousness in the past, but is a statement concerning God’s powerful, gracious presence” in present circumstances. “The present reality of exile is not godless and not graceless.”
The same is no less true for each one of us today. Just as with the ancient Israelites, God walks in our midst through the wilderness, and beckons us to follow. Just as the pillars of cloud and fire signifying God’s presence went ahead of Moses and his people as they journeyed out of Egypt (Exodus 13:17-22); just as the cloud filled Solomon’s newly built Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-13); and just as the heavens parted over Jesus at his baptism to reveal the Spirit of God and the Father’s declaration, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Matthew 3:16-17)—God is with us every inch of the way. And just as Jesus—Emmanuel, “God is with us (cf. Matthew 1:23)—is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to face trial and temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), so are we. But we are not alone; God joins us in that struggle, as the wonderful mystery of the Incarnation demonstrates. God voluntarily limits himself in human form to re-establish a partnership of grace with all of creation, thereby providing hope for our future.
The same Spirit which Jesus breathed upon his disciples (cf. John 20:21-22) is conferred upon us at Baptism. This Holy Spirit now animates the Body of Christ, the Church—through the very human (and still-flawed) life of its members, through worship and the Sacraments, and through Scripture, God’s Word to us. Through these means, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). They provide us with the strength and courage we need to persevere. They guide our course toward joy, gladness, purpose, reconciliation, and redemption. They give us the grace of God—who reveals himself in the wilderness.
© Abbey Press Publications, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, IN, 2013

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