As we begin to think about images of pilgrimage, of paradise and wilderness, in the Scriptures of the New Testament, we can put aside, for a time, our pagan comparisons, for the point of comparison will now be the Old Testament; and to that end, we should take up more fully the meaning of Old Testament images of wilderness. [1]

The spiritual meaning of wilderness becomes especially clear, of course, in the story of the Exodus. Yet, there remains a remarkable ambiguity in that meaning. Wilderness is both curse and blessing: it is the place where fiery serpents lurk to wound, but it is also the place where the brazen serpent is lifted high to heal; it is the dry and barren land where people starve, but it is also where the gift is made, of supernatural food from heaven. It is the place of lawlessness, but it is also the place were the law of God is given and received. It is in the wilderness, the place of solitude, that God speaks thunderingly; and it is there that the tribes of Israel come to know themselves as chosen people.

When they forget their calling, and turn their eyes again towards Egypt, they must learn again the lesson of the wilderness, in the exile in Babylon, which is a spiritual analogue of wilderness. Ezekiel calls it, explicitly, "the wilderness of the peoples" (20:36): "I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples", says his prophecy, "and there I will enter into judgement with you face to face". See the ambiguity of that: only in the strange land will Israel discern the word and will of Israel's God.

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, When we remembered thee, O Sion....
"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (Ps.137) But only in that wilderness could the Lord's song be renewed, and only from the wilderness could Sion, the house of God, be rebuilt. As Rilke puts it, in his strangely beautiful way:
Only whoso has raised
among the shades his lyre
dares, with foreboding, aspire
to offer infinite praise.

As we approach the New Testament, especially in that remarkable non-canonical, sectarian, and apocalyptic literature which both pre-dates and surrounds the Christian writings, we find the theme intensified. The Apocalypse of Baruch may speak for all:

The shepherds of Israel have perished, and the lamps which gave light are extinguished, and the fountains have withheld their stream from which we used to drink. And we are left in darkness, and amidst the briars of the forest, and the thirst of the wilderness.
But the wilderness will be redeemed, in the age of the Messiah, and the prophet represents that redemption with a conflation of the images of wilderness and Eden:
And it will come to pass at that self-same time that the treasury of manna will again descend from on high, and they who have persevered in righteousness will eat of it in those years .... And wild beasts will come from the forest and minister unto men, and asps and dragons will come forth from their holes, and submit themselves to a little child. [3]
Not only is the positive significance of wilderness intensified, but images of wilderness and paradise (Eden) tend towards a conflation. Paradise and wilderness are to be one; paradise is to be the wilderness transfigured.

Those curious non-canonical documents, and the ascetical wilderness communities which produced them (e.g., Essenes, Qumran), stand just around the fringes of the New Testament, and it is St. John the Baptist who takes us across that borderline. Just what he may have had to do with any such communities, we may perhaps never know; but he is clearly one of those who prepare in the wilderness a highway for the Lord. John comes, baptizing, to Bethabara, "beyond Jordan" (St. John, 1:28): that is to say, in the wilderness, on the border of the Promised Land. It is there that God is to be met with face to face; it is there that his coming will be recognised. And in his coming, the law, "all righteousness", will be fulfilled. Paradise and wilderness will be identified.

The Gospels abound in just such conflated imagery. Consider just a few examples: Jesus goes, driven by the Spirit, to the wilderness, where he undergoes forty days of fasting, echoing the fast of Moses, and the forty years of Israells privations, and there, once more, the covenant is clarified: "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God". "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." And then the wilderness is no more satanic: "Angels came and ministered unto him." Wilderness becomes paradise. [4]

And consider the miracles of feeding. "How can anyone satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?". The miraculous bread is explicitly related to the ancient gift of manna in the desert; but this manna, now, is indeed the food of paradise. It is the Lord himself who comes from heaven. This bread is, even now, eternal life. Once again, wilderness is paradise.

We might consider, too, the paradisal imagery of Pentecost. "They spake with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance", and all the strangers, from foreign parts, understood, as though it ere each one's own language. It is, of course, the reversal of the confusion of tongues which punished the architects of the ancient tower of Babel. That story of the tower is another image of the fall of Man; of the expulsion from paradise. The similarity to the Eden story is in some ways very striking. In Eden, the temptation is to "be as gods"; with the tower of Babel, it is the same thing - the attempt to take heaven as one's own possession. At Pentecost, the wilderness of tongues - language at its most confused, language which is apparent nonsense - becomes the harmonic speech of paradise. Paradise and wilderness are conflated.

The heart of the matter is to be found in the Last Supper discourse, in St. John's Gospel, where Jesus teaches his disciples the meaning of his departure and return:

Verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in travail, hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that child is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you (St. John, 16:20-22).
The point is just this: the wilderness of desolation becomes the paradise of joy; physical departure becomes spiritual presence; they are inseparable; there is no one without the other. All this comes into focus with the Cross, which is at once the tree of utter desolation, and the tree of glory; the tree of death, and the tree of life. It is the tree which lifts the brazen serpent in the wilderness, and the tree of paradise, whose leaves are for the healing of the nation.. What was, for the pagan hero, tragic contradiction - "foolishness to the Greeks"; what was, for the people of the Old Covenant, shrouded in ambiguity - "a stumbling block to the Jews"; is here reconciled and clarified, as "the power of God and the wisdom of God".

The inspired imagination which identifies the Cross with the paradisal tree of life penetrates to profound truth. You will all recall what wonderful things Fortunatus does with that imagery in his hymns on the Holy Cross. Perhaps some of you may know the great mosaic which adorns the apse of the Church of San Clemente, in Rome. There, in the centre, is the Cross, clearly the tree of life, planted upon the hill of paradise restored by Christ. From the base, there flow four streams, to water paradise, and harts are drinking from the streams. There are doves, representing souls, and the phoenix of immortality The tree is at the same time a vine ("Let us liken the Church of Christ to this vine", says the inscription), which spreads its branches to give life to all creation. Over the tree is the hand of God the Father; in a border at the bottom are the twelve apostles, represented as lambs, flanking the Lamb of God in the centre of the border. Images of Eden, of the Cross, and of the Church's life are all gathered there in a magnificent conflation. [5].

Obviously, a certain spiritual tension is represented in the conflation of the biblical images, and it is a tension inherent in Christian spirituality as represented in the New Testament. It is the tension expressed, for instance, in the apparent contradiction between "realised" and "futurist" eschatology. With the coming of the Son of Man, the Kingdom comes: it is here for you, it is within your reach, it is within you; and that is paradise. But the Son of Man is also yet to come in glory: not in a secret wilderness out there, but here, nd everywhere; "for as the lightening cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall the coming of the Son of Man be" (Mt. 24:17).

In the New Testament, the spiritual tension of the "interim" is expressed in several ways. In the Johannine literature, it is expressed principally in terms of love. The eternal life of paradise is present here and now, because we know the love of God: "we have known and believed the love that God hath to us" (I John, 4:16), the love manifested in the sending of the only begotten Son, that we might live through him. "We have passed from death to life"; we have entered paradise; "because we love the brethren" (3:14). Love of brethren is the sign of the life of paradise, and the precise reversal of the enmity of Cain towards Abel. "He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (4:16). Fear is cast out, and there is no sin. Here, truly, is the life of paradise. Yet, the fact remains that love must be commanded (4:21), and law belongs to wilderness. Paradise is in this wilderness; the two are conflated, but not simply so: this is paradise for those who will discern the signs, and live in obedience to them.

In the Pauline literature, exactly the same spiritual tension is present, in the most fundamental way, though in a somewhat different language. Many familiar Pauline phrases dramatically express that tension. Here are some examples, selected rather at random: "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling" (there is the wilderness), "For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (there is paradise) (Phil., 2:12-13); "Our conversation is in heaven" (there is paradise); "from whence also we look for the Saviour" (there is wilderness) (Phil., 3:20). Such examples could be multiplied; those oppositions belong to the tension which marks the Pauline theology of law and grace, of justification and sanctification. "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom.5:1). All is done, all has been accomplished; yet "the inward man is renewed day by day", as we look towards the unseen, eternal things (II Cor.,4:16-18). Amid temptations to be conformed to the spirit of the present age, we seek renewal of the mind (Rom., 12:3), as we await our conformation to the image of the Son, "from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (II Cor., 3:18). "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face" (I Cor.,13:12). Wilderness and paradise stand in opposition; it is charity, the Spirit's gift (Rom., 5:5), which binds the two together, in a single peace. Thus, we "rejoice in hope", and "glory in tribulations" (Rom., 5:2-3), knowing "that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to his purpose" (Rom., 8:28).

It is in that spiritual tension between commandment and love, between law and grace, between "the present age" and "the age to come" (both of which are present), between wilderness and paradise (present together), that Christian spirituality makes its pilgrimage. It is that tension which necessarily characterizes the spiritual life of the Christian Church, historically, as we shall see in our meditations on the works of St. Augustine and Dante.

Notes: Chapter III

1. In what immediately follows, I have drawn upon the work of my friend and teacher, George H. Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought (New York, 1962), pp. 19-25.

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, 9 (tr. C. F. MacIntyre, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1961, p-19).

3. The Apocalypse of Baruch (ed. and tr. R. H. Charles, London, 1896, 77:13f; 29:8; 73:6), as quoted by G. H. Williams, op. cit., p-21.

4. On the possible paradisal significance of the Marcan reference to "wild beasts", see C. H. William., op. cit., pp-23-24.

5. For a fuller description of the iconography, see Leonard Boyle, O. P., A Short Guide to St. Clement's, Rome (4 ed., Rome, 1972), pp. 28-31.

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