In the spiritual life, one of the tactics God uses to bring a man or woman to himself is to deprive them of the great project that stands between them and himself. Of course, this so called great project is only great from our limited human point of view. God, who sees things as they really are, is generally not impressed by our ventures.
Once I did a retreat conducted by Sr Briege McKenna, a rather famous nun, who conducts retreats for priests throughout the world. In a private interview she said to me: Fr John, it’s not what you can do for Jesus, it’s what Jesus can do through you. In other words, it’s not your project that matters, it’s his.
We all have our projects in life; they may be big or small. Some individuals spend their life trying to make a billion dollars, or getting to the top of the power-pile at work - others are happy spending their life on their vegetable garden or their house. I know people whose project has become their grandchildren, or their sport – golf, tennis, lawn bowls.
A project is something we occupy our life with – something which takes our prime time. It may be a worthy project or an utter waste of time. Sometimes it can be a number of projects - it doesn’t matter, so long as it keeps us occupied, striving, mesmerised – and too busy for God.
So sometimes God, because he loves us and because he wishes to draw us to life, separates us from our beloved project. He has many ways of doing this but whichever way he chooses the end result is that we find ourselves, often for the first time in our life, standing quite alone.
At first this can be a painful, difficult, even frightening experience. So often we define ourselves in terms of our projects and when we lose them we often go into mourning and ask ourselves – who am I now? – and we feel like we have somehow entered a vast, dry, featureless desert.
All this is precisely what God did to the Hebrews. He took them away from their slavery in Egypt, their big project, so they could come close to him.
Thomas Merton, in his book Thoughts in Solitude has this to say about the desert: '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.'
The desert is valuable to God because it’s of no use to us. We can’t do anything there except, of course, be with God.
'The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.'
God put the Israelites in a place which was so barren and inhospitable that it could be called a ‘project-free zone’. Only then was he able to reveal to them his project.
And what was God’s project? It was that they should love him, and that they should show this love by obeying him.
'The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness…'
For forty years God kept the 12 raggedy tribes of Jacob wandering in the desert. They had been slaves in Egypt for so long they had come to believe this was who they really were.
God knew this false idea could not be reversed overnight and so he journeyed with them in the wilderness, feeding them and giving them to drink. He gave them a law which they began to learn to obey there and a form of worship with which to honour him – and all the time promised them a land of their own – the Promised Land.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob formed his People in the desert and gradually gave them a sense of being, not slaves, but his – his People, a royal People, a chosen Race, a Nation set apart – and entirely the work, the project, of God.
Some people are naturally drawn to the wilderness. The Desert Fathers made their home there and allowed themselves to be formed by God through prayer, penance, and daily work. They were like all the holy ones of history. They made the transition from doing a project for God to allowing themselves to become the project of God.
Let me conclude by quoting Thomas Merton one more time: 'The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself.'
Isn’t that beautiful? To be nothing but himself! Surely this is the greatest project of them all – to be nothing but ourselves! Merton’s full sentence reads: 'The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself – a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.'