And as they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went you out into the wilderness to see?…
(From the Gospel for the day)
How that we must wholly come out from ourselves, that we may go into the wilderness and behold God.
Matt. xi.7. -- "What went ye out into the wilderness for to see?"
OUR Lord Jesus Christ said unto the Jews, "What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" In these words let us consider three things: First, the going out; secondly, the wilderness; thirdly, what we are to see there.
First, let us consider the going out. This blessed going out takes place in four ways: --
The first way is to come out from the world, that is, from the craving after worldly advantages, and to despise them, according to that precept of St. John, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." Those who thus forsake the love of the world, may be fitly said to come out of Egypt, leaving King Pharaoh behind; that is, they purpose to forsake pride, vain-glory, presumption, and all other sins. And those who are thus minded do greatly need a Moses to be their leader and commander; for he was very gentle and merciful, and in their coming out they require to be treated with great gentleness, and kindness, and forbearance. But such as come out from Sodom and Gomorrah, that is, those who have to depart from covetousness, intemperance, and unchastity, and are hard beset by these foes, do need an angel for their leader and guide; that is to say, a man who can have compassion on them, but who is himself temperate, pure, and strict in life. Now those who do thus suffer themselves to be led and guided, shall be verily delivered from all their pride and sensuality, as Isaiah says: "Ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace;" and as Christ also says: "In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye shall have peace."
The second kind of coming out is to loose thy hold on outward things, to cease from thy vain anxieties, thy selfish wishing and planning, and to turn thy thoughts inward, that thou mayest learn to know thyself, and to see what thou art, how thou art, and in what it standeth amiss with thee. He who is too full of his own joys or sorrows to get beyond himself can never come to know himself. So St. Bernard says: "It were better to know thyself, and to see how sick and full of infirmities thou art, than to be master of all the sciences in the world." Therefore says Solomon in his Song: "If thou know not [thyself], O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock [of thy companions]:" which signifies, consider the lives of God's saints, and look at thyself in that mirror; that is to say, follow their example, and walk not after thine own will.
The third kind of going out is to give up thine own ease and thine own way, and to devote thyself, so far as thou art able, to thy neighbour, to help him by counsel and deed, and by thine own good example, to the utmost of thy power and the best of thy knowledge, in a constant spirit of hearty love, that he may be brought to the things that make for his eternal peace. For this is the commandment of the Lord, "That ye love one another, as I have loved you. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." So likewise St. Paul says: "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ." Just as it is said in the Book of Genesis: "Except ye bring your youngest brother with you, ye shall see my face no more." This is also plainly meant in the Book of Canticles, where we read, "Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us get up early to the vineyards, and let us lodge in the villages, and let us see if the vine flourish."
The fourth kind of going out is to forsake everything but God, so that our love towards God should be the strongest love we have; and we should indeed love Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength. As it was said unto Abraham: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house:" that is to say, "Set not your affections on the things that perish, but on God only; and whatever you possess, thank God for it, and use it for Him." Thus had the woman of Canaan come out, as her words indeed testify: "True, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master's table;" and therefore she obtained her request. Thus it is said to the loving soul and her companions: "Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion." Well may it be said "ye daughters," and not sons; for they are still feeble in understanding, and troubled with many womanish fears, and not yet strong in renunciation, but are still tender and weak, like maidens or daughters.
The second subject for our consideration is "the wilderness." When men have forsaken sins and worldly ambition, they come into the wilderness, which signifies a spiritual life, or the life of one who is dead to the world. Now there are two kinds of wilderness, a good and a bad. It is an evil wilderness when a man's heart is filled with vanity, and barren of good deeds, of love and of heavenly aspiration, and far and wide in the Church, or in the temple of the soul, there rises no incense of praise to God; when the sheep of the house of Israel, that is to say all good thoughts, are scattered, each to his own way. But that is a wilderness which is very fruitful and good, when the whirlwinds of earthly cares or passions are laid to rest, and the billows of worldly desire and creature aims cease to swell up in the depths of the heart. And then, even though the first sharp dart of pain pierce through every nerve of body and mind, yet in the deep sources of his will, the man remains undaunted. That is a good wilderness when without there are storms, yet within there is peace; the wilderness of which God said by the prophet: "I will bring you into the wilderness, and there will I plead with you face to face;" for no one does hear or understand what is in him, and what God says in his soul, until he is brought into this wilderness.
There are three reasons why a spiritual life is called a wilderness, or a life in the desert. The first is on account of the small number who do turn from the world and go forth into it, and because the common way of the world is for each man to follow his own earthly objects. But it is the wisest course to drive out the world from the heart, by banishing the very thoughts and images thereof, and, with Moses, go into the depths of the wilderness and dwell therein, that so we may the better watch over and guard our sheep; that is to say, escape the assaults of inward temptation, and the wanderings of the imagination into forbidden fields. And as, when Moses drove his sheep into the farthest corners of the wilderness, God revealed Himself to him there in a burning bush, so likewise shalt thou be filled with burning love and holy longing, and follow on to know God.
This is the beauteous wilderness of which Solomon speaks when he says: "Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness like a pillar of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?" St. Gregory says: "It is the nature and property of love to rise up unceasingly from itself to God with holy aspiration, never resting till it hath reached and embraced the Highest Good; for nothing on earth can draw it down or imprison its flame, but it soars ever upwards to God above itself." And so it is with good men; and the closer they cling to Him whom they love, the more do they turn from and despise all the smiles of the world. They cleave with steadfast desire unto God, as Job says; "Even that it would please God to destroy me; that he would let loose his hand, and cut me off! Then should I yet have comfort." Of this wilderness say the angels: "Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?" and the loving soul answers: "I have found him whom my soul loveth, I have laid hold on him and will not let him go." For those who come into this wilderness are able to taste and tell of secret and inward matters. Moreover, in the exercise of love all virtues do spring up and grow. So Christ, on Mount Tabor, took to Himself all His glory, for an image to us of that fruit of the wilderness which shall be ours also if we give ourselves unto God. For St. Paul says: "But we all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."
Again, a spiritual life may be fitly called a wilderness, by reason of the many sweet flowers which spring up and flourish where they are not trodden under foot by man. In this respect the life of one dead to the world may well be likened to a wilderness, seeing that so many virtues may be learned by continual and earnest striving; but because the effort needed is toilsome and painful at the first, few are willing to make it. In this wilderness are found the lilies of chastity, and the white roses of innocence; and therein are found too the red roses of sacrifice, when flesh and blood are consumed in the struggle with sin, and the man is ready, if need be, to suffer martyrdom, -- the which is not easily to be learned in the world. In this wilderness, too, are found the violets of humility, and many other fair flowers and wholesome roots, in the examples of holy men of God. And in this wilderness shalt thou choose for thyself a pleasant spot wherein to dwell; that is, a holy life, in which thou mayest follow the example of God's saints in pureness of heart, poverty of spirit, true obedience, and all other virtues; so that it may be said, as it is in the Canticles: "Many flowers have appeared in our land;" for many have died full of holiness and good works.
A third likeness between a spiritual life and the wilderness is that we find in the wilderness so little provision for the flesh, and therefore the lovers of this world cannot live there. Thus did the children of Israel complain against Moses because they lacked many things. By this we are to understand a life of moderation, girding up the loins with manly vigour. And every man is bound to lead such a life; for had he the whole world wherewith to supply his wants, he would still be bound scrupulously to take no more than sufficient for his real necessities. Moreover by such a life all the powers of the soul are braced up. And although there is little to delight the senses in this wilderness, there is much of the comfort of the spirit, which far excels the pleasures of the world. Isaiah says: "For the Lord shall comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord." And again: "I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water." Thus the solitary soul bears many more children of good works than she that is married to the world. So Pharaoh was commanded by God to let His people go forth into the desert, that they might sacrifice unto the Lord, and receive spiritual manna instead of the carnal pleasures of Egypt.
The third thing for our consideration is what we are to see in the wilderness. When a man has gone out into the wilderness, he is bidden to look with his inward eye upon "the king and his bride," which is the soul, with all her hidden treasures of loveliness. It is written, "Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold the king;" that is, Solomon, who is a type of Christ, of whom Isaiah says: "To us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful." And now behold how wonderful God is in His deity, that He has become man for the sake of His bride. This is the miracle that Moses saw, and said: "I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." The thorn-bush is Christ's human nature; the flame is His soul filled with burning love; the light is His deity shining through His mortal body. Now, consider this Christ and Solomon, upon whom is poured out without measure that wisdom which comprehends all things in its grasp: He is the Truth who hath taught us the way to heaven; let the soul look upon Him, that she may follow Him, to live after His spirit, and not after her own inclination, and her nature shall be greatly strengthened to fight the good fight when she considers the nature of her King, how He fulfilled His pilgrimage. For it shall greatly refresh the living soul to remember from time to time His human infirmities, and from time to time to rejoice in His life in the spirit.
A master has said: "Excess in pleasures enfeebles the powers, and overflowing spiritual emotions consume the spirit. Great joy cannot last always, but while here we have need of variableness in our joys; for it is not yet given to the soul to serve God in the holy of holies." Therefore shall the soul sometimes contemplate the divine greatness of Christ, and sometimes His holy humanity. A soul that is as yet inexperienced and strange in the things of God shall be bidden to believe in God; but a fervent, tried, and experienced soul shall be invited to behold the King in his beauty. And hence the loving soul shall see with her inward eye in what wise she ought to yield to or withstand her fellow-Christians of mankind. St. Bernard says: "O Lord, come quickly and reign on Thy throne, for now ofttimes something rises up within me, and tried to take possession of Thy throne; pride, covetousness, uncleanness, and sloth want to be my kings; and then evil-speaking, anger, hatred, and the whole train of vices join with me in warring against myself, and try to reign over me. I resist them, I cry out against them, and say, I have no other king than Christ.' O King of Peace, come and reign in me, for I will have no king but Thee!" And Gilbert says: "O Lord, I endure Thy hand upon me, and press forward with straining eyes, with knocking, with prayers, and through many heights and depths of joy and sorrow." But O, who can faint and grow weary in making himself ready for such a king, when he remembers how God has made our little nature able to receive His divine Substance, and has even taken upon Himself our nature, and invested Himself with the colours of our humanity, and so revealed His beauty unto us, and loveth us much more than we love Him! I were in truth worthy of all condemnation, if I did not love Him above all things, when He asketh nothing from me but to love Him!
Therefore let us in the first place come out wholly from ourselves, that we may, in the next place, enter into this blessed wilderness, and, in the third place, desire to know and behold the true King and bridegroom of the soul. And to this end the Moses of a holy Will must lead us into the Mount of God. But the people whom Moses led up out of Egypt are an image of those who, having newly laid aside their evil customs, do easily return to their old ways, and make to themselves in the wilderness a golden calf of their old fleshly lusts, of unchaste or worldly thoughts, to live after the flesh, and serve their own bellies and not God, but have their delight in the creature. And hence we have need of the true Moses, even Christ Jesus, that He may at all times guide us and lead us, and draw us to Himself, so that we may go out after Him into the wilderness of our own hearts, wherein God lies hidden to us. May God help us all to attain thereunto! Amen!
Parallel VersesKJV: And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?