Finding God in the desert of despair

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After serving as one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land, Joshua experienced the desert, wandering for the following 40 years.

In a visit this week to the United States-Mexico border with the Kino Border Initiative run by the Society of Jesus, my mind has been preoccupied with unforgettable images of and from the desert. As Thomas Merton once put it, “The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [sic, passim]. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. [With the Chosen People’s wandering for 40 years], God’s plan was that they should learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with him alone. … The desert is the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself — that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.”

One biblical figure especially associated with the desert is Joshua. After serving as one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land, Joshua experienced the desert, wandering for the following 40 years. Eventually he became Moses’ successor, helping to win the Battle of Jericho, and leading the Israelites into the land flowing with milk and honey.

Today the yucca brevifolia or the izote de desierto (from the Aztec-Spanish word for “desert dagger”) is called the Joshua tree because it reminded Mormon settlers of Joshua’s outstretched arms guiding his forces in the conquest of Canaan (though some potential confusion exists between this account and that of Moses in Exodus 17:8-15). Regardless, the craggy tree brings to mind the desolation and supplication to God from a position of one’s solitude to which Merton alludes.

The narratives about Joshua explore the Jewish People’s history from their entrance into the Promised Land leading up to the eventual Babylonian exile. It was for him that Jesus would eventually be named, for the Hebrew and Aramaic versions of Yeshua — which is the closest transliteration of what Jesus’ family and friends actually called him — both highlight the salvific lordship of Yahweh and his miraculous relationship with us.

The ascetical tradition of life in the desert, whether literal or proverbial as we call to mind in Lent, brings to mind the complete and radical dependency on God that played such a central role in the Old Testament, and especially the Joshua narratives. Paradoxically, many of the early Christian authors connected Joshua, son of Nun, with the Latin word navis, a type of ship from which we get the word Navy. Though originally due to a mistranslation of a Hebrew term for prophet, the idea that Joshua prefigured Jesus, the barque of salvation through which believers can navigate the difficult straits to heaven, arises in many commentaries on the Jewish figure.

It is undeniable that many of the atrocities wrought by the seeming “heroes” of the ancient Scriptures are unpalatable to contemporary sensibilities. Murdering whole towns of men, women and children to take possession of them does not easily square with the eventual teachings of the Prince of Peace, though Augustine and countless others defend the “justice” meted out to Gentile nations through the sword of the Israelites. Yet, elements of Joshua’s story do still hold spiritual truth for those of us who seek to find God in the midst of the desert of despair. It is likely for this reason that Dante places Joshua among the righteous warriors for Christ in the Paradiso.

Merton’s prayer calls us all to strenuously engage in this effort: “This then is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find him.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.