Tuesday, June 5, 2007
THE DESERT IN THE HEART
As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, 0 God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory.
I stretch out my hands to thee; my soul thirsts for thee like a parched land.
'All my springs are in you.'
With joy you will. draw water from the wells of salvation.
I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fall, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
(Psalm 42: 1-2; Psalm 63: 1-2; Psalm 143: 6; Psalm 87: 7; Isaiah 12: 3; Isaiah 41:18 -- all RSV; Isaiah 55: 1, NRSV; Isaiah 35: 6b-7a; Ezekiel 47: 12; Revelation 22:1-2 -- all RSV)
The full text for this chapter heading comes from the English poet W.H. Auden:
In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
The first and third lines express complementary Interpretations of the human predicament. The second and fourth lines tell of the solution.
There is more than one desert in the heart, and the poet of Psalm 84 speaks (probably from his own experience) of a vale of misery which the God-blessed person finds to be a well, with pools of water to refresh the journey. ,
The most famous well in Palestine is Jacob's well near Nablus, several miles from biblical Samaria. The well is deep: a coin dropped into it takes several seconds before one hears the splash. The water is cold and clear, and visitors are invited to drink a small glassful by the guardian monk. The well is associated with the world's loveliest love story, that of Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29), and even earlier with that of Abraham's steward sent to find a bride for Isaac (Genesis 24).
For Christians there is the more heart-touching account of Jesus sitting tired by the well, and his request to the Samaritan woman to draw water for him to drink, followed by the conversation about the water of life which Christ supplies: 'Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst... it will become a spring of water, welling up to eternal life', a spring from which others may drink (John 4).
C.H. Dodd, one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, quotes a poem from Longfellow's Songs of King Olaf, the meaning of which I have witnessed in my own visits to the Abrahamic country of the Negev:
As torrents in summer,
Half-dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise, tho' the
Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been failing
Far off at their fountains –
So hearts that are fainting
Grow full to o'erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining.
Where there is water, trees will ultimately grow, and a passage from Isaiah gives a list of them drawing their nourishment from open rivers on the heights, previously rocky -- cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive, cypress, plane and pine. This may refer to God's control of national history: Israel may be as weak as a worm, but God will make it strong and great, so that all its people will rejoice in the Lord, the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 41: 16-20).
The poet who wrote the first psalm in the psalter makes this insight personal. The Jerusalem Bible makes verse 1 dear: 'How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked and does not take a stand in the path that sinners tread, nor a seat in company with cynics, but who delights in the Law of Yahweh and murmurs -- reads meditatively -- his law day and night.' The godly person is like a tree growing near a stream, putting its roots down into the moist earth, so that the life-giving sap rises to every part of the tree -- branches, twigs, leaves and fruit.
Ezekiel's vision and that of the seer in Revelation may have relevance to the task of restoring the decay of our inner cities, where towering office blocks and rejected beehives of slum flats, the lack of social amenities and inadequate family homes breed poverty, despair and greed for quick profits, as well as un-neighbourly relationships. We who care for the good life can thank God that we are becoming aware of our failure and the crying need of so many of our fellow humans.
As we go further in our social and moral audit, there are other kinds of deserts in the heart. There is a desert of loneliness, with so many old people living alone and often spending a whole day without a visit or even a word from another human. The dialled telephone would seem a God-given gift for such a desert.
There is the desert of language in our prayer life, trying to find a word to describe the Indescribable, the Inexpressible. That need not be too difficult practically, for God knows the silent feeling of the heart, and to him all hearts are open, all desires known and from that Eternal Wisdom and Love no secrets are hidden.
And there is the desert of suffering that comes to disabled people or to those troubled by the diminishments and irritations of old age. When ill or in pain, or through failing eyesight or increasing deafness, it is difficult to pray. I often wish that our Lord had lived on into old age, so that he could have shown us a pattern for accepting such limitations.
Two thoughts have helped me in my desert. The first is to make an immediate act of trust in God, shooting up an arrow of prayer to him. The second is to remember Paul's words, when his unspecified and unhealed 'thorn in the flesh' was hurting him -- 'I can do (or bear) all things through Christ, who strengthens me' (Philippians 4: 13).
So in conclusion, I come back to Auden's verse from which I began, with a slight amendment to cheer the occasional stretches of depression in my own old age:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start;
In any prison of my days
Teach me freedom how to praise.
Many people as they grow older fear the coming of old age. They regret the failing of physical and mental powers, the withdrawal from active life, posts of leadership and the satisfaction of being used creatively. These increasing diminishments can be seen as a hollowing-out of the material and the temporal, in order to be ready to be filled with the spiritual and the eternal.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul
There are credits as well as debits in the aging process -but the debits gain greater prominence. Each stage of life brings its own rewards, and old age is no exception. The happy people are those who accept their age and major on the credits rather than the debits.
Blind optimism is not warranted, however, for growing old is not all fun! The handicaps and limitations are not easy to take. Declining health, decreasing mobility, the waning of one's powers are, for many, too painfully real to be ignored.
With his accustomed realism, Paul recognised this when he wrote, 'Outwardly we are wasting away' (2 Corinthians 4: 16). His own sufferings -- see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 -- must have taken a heavy toll of his physical frame, so ,-he is speaking from painful experience. But he did not stop there; instead, he added the secret of his staying power: 'Yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.'
Indeed, he shared something else he had learned over the years: 'I have learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance... I can do everything through him who gives me strength' (Philippians 4: 12-13). His secret? A daily appropriation of Christ's strength to meet his weakness.
J.O. Sanders, 'Age is in Attitudes -- not Arteries'
Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. .People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. In the central place of every heart, there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and then only, are you grown old.
The wisdom of the heart is its growing old in experience, recollected in tranquillity, and digested in grace, humility and love. What other wisdom is worth seeking and having? If people are rightly aging, they are showing in that wisdom and, as their years increase, so does this wisdom.
Carroll E. Simcox, The Gift of Aging
I love looking at you, hundred-year-old tree, loaded with shoots and boughs as though you were a stripling. Teach me the secret of growing old like you, open to life, to youth, to dreams, as somebody aware that youth and age are merely steps towards eternity.
Dom Helder Camara, A Thousand Reasons for Living
Old people are approaching a new frontier. Some will have a quiet faith in the God and Father of Jesus and will live each day as it comes, taking the crossing into the new dimension in their stride. Others will want to explore, experiencing the spiritual dimension within their own being, learning from those who left insights before they crossed, living now in the values of the beyond, recognising that the only currency they can take with them is love.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul
Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.
Of his deliverance I will boast,
till all that are distressed,
when learning this, will comfort take
and calm their griefs to rest.
O make but trial of his love;
experience will decide
how blest are they, and only they,
who in his truth confide.
Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady
When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
Teilhard de Chardin
Thank you, Lord!
When trees are stripped, bent, bowed and torn
In howling gale, torrential rain;
For every wind which leaves forlorn,
Produces stronger growth through pain;
Though rain's sharp needles wound perchance,
They bring life-giving sustenance.
Thank you, Lord!
For flames which purify life's dross,
Shifting all sediment and dross,
Till dear, bright purity can hold
Sure image of the Master's cross:
Praise for the fire; the icy blast;
Thank you, Lord, that your hold is fast.
Thank you, Lord!
When powerful forces wrench a soul;
When sore heart's praise comes haltingly,
That shattered lives can be made whole
If handed to you willingly.
Then every stumbling 'Thank you, Lord!'
Will lift, expand, proclaim your word.
Grant, O Lord, that the years that are left may be the holiest, the most loving, the most mature. I thank you for the past and especially that you have kept the good wine until now. Help me to accept diminishing powers as the opportunity to prepare my soul for the full and free life to come in the state prepared by your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
George Appleton, Journey for a Soul
May the ever-present God, the source of living water, open rivers and streams before you in the deserts of your heart. May he be your life in times of spiritual barrenness, your companion in times of loneliness, your strength in times of weakness, and your provider of fruitfulness in your years of old age. Amen.
Rivers in the Desert ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 237-244