March 5, 2017
Jesus enters the desert, the deep solitude of the desert. In it he experiences what we too are called to experience in union with him---what I called the other day “the delightful solitude” and “the terrible solitude.” The first is about rest in God, the rest that satisfies our deepest longings. The second is about total dependence on God, absolute trust in him whatever trials befall us, whatever our losses, for it is in our poverty that we discover that he is the only one who can save us and that he is the only one who can suffice for us. As Andre Louf has described it:
“Human helplessness is a first product of solitude. It liberates a man from himself and his all too human ideals. It reduces him to size in the presence of God. It lays a man constantly open to God’s omnipotent mercy. Anyone who prays in solitude has in the end no other warranty. He stands utterly exposed to God’s mercy. He is a suppliant hand stretched out to God, hesitant and trusting at the same time, a hand that God’s love alone can fill.”
The trial that Jesus bears in today’s Gospel is his encounter with Satan, something that we too will share with Jesus. St. Benedict’s description of the hermit is that of one who has been trained by community living to fight against the devil in the solitary combat of the desert. This certainly implies that the community also fights against the devil, each person doing her best according to her ability, but together and not solitary. Within this community effort certain persons will have reached a profound depth of interior stamina so that God’s power will be more effective in them. Sometimes when we hear that our prayers have been answered against great odds, I wonder to myself, “Whose prayers were the really decisive prayers in this matter? But my second thought is, “Even though some sisters’ prayers are more powerful, there is still so much power in a united community’s prayers, the weak and the strong all praying together in the name of Christ.
Here is an example of prayer against evil that is the only thing that remained with me after I read the life of Janet Erskine Stuart, a very holy, wise and beloved Mother General of the Madames of the Sacred Heart. I remember in particular Dom Bernard Johnson and later Father Gabriel saying how much they loved her so I decided to read her life. She certainly was gifted in dealing with her sisters and students alike in a most Christlike and creative way, but of all the passages this is the one that stayed with me:
“Once when the fall of a loved soul seemed imminent, and all hope was given up by those who had not reckoned the force of a Mother’s prayer, she spent the greater part of the night in the chapel at Roehampton, with two others. A few hours before the fatal deed was to be done, he who had threatened the destruction of this loved child was suddenly struck down and died in a short time, saying to one who had connived in his project: ‘This is the hand of God, have nothing more to do in this matter.”
Back to Jesus’ combat with Satan. Notice his weapon. In Pope Francis’ Lenten address this year we heard him speak of Lenten practices and particularly of the Word of God which undergirds them all. And so we see Jesus replying to Satan with words that have proceeded from the mouth of God, words of certain truth. For us Cistercians Lent is a time in which we are most particularly devoted to the Word---the words of Sacred Scripture and the words of those who have loved and pondered Sacred Scripture. May our communal devotion to the Word of God this Lent be a way in which God can bring more light into our own hearts and into the hearts of all for whom we pray. May it be a real weapon in the struggle against the spirit of evil.