Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales: The Desert Beyond the Place



The Suffering of Pain: the Fear of Dying.

A very successful businessman (in his middle forties) with offices and branches of his business concerns in the city and outside the country lay wasted in the hospital bed critically ill with terminal cancer of the lungs, when a priest-friend visited him. The patient who only had a month left to live, struggled to utter, “Father, you know naman, we grew up together and you know that I am not really a terribly bad man. ‘Hindi naman ako talagang masama.’ Why am I suffering like this?” The priest tried to explain, himself faltering while choosing his words trying to explain spiritual things like sacrifice, pain, penance for sins and other motivations that hardly correspond to anything in the material world. Every one feels the pain in any suffering, because when someone is in pain something of the person dies. And all have the natural fear of death.

Or take the example of Juan Cruz who was approached by an old friend Pablo from his youth in order to sign a contract that would give Pablo ten million pesos and part of it could be shared with Juan who knew that the contract was unjust and dishonest and would deprive the Government of millions of pesos. Juan Cruz knew it was wrong to do it and he was bothered and disturbed. He knew he should not do it … and so, Juan had to die to his old and selfish friendship with Pablo. Juan Cruz had to enter his Paschal Mystery and exit from it a happy man at peace with himself.

At the Heart of all Spirituality is the Paschal Mystery.

The training of the priests necessarily requires that priests should first of all understand what the Paschal Mystery is, and that they should live this mystery in their own lives in order that they may be able to explain to and inspire the people entrusted to their care to accept, undergo and also live “these mysterious painful crossings” in their lives. It is not surprising at all that when the Church teaches spirituality it defines spirituality as union with Jesus Christ, in the submission of one’s life to the Spirit and in filial attitude to the Father. This spirituality “has its roots in the experience of the Cross, which in deep communion leads to the totality of the Paschal Mystery”. (PDV, 45).

The paschal event, the passing over or the Paschal Mystery is just that—a mystery! Suffering is all over even among those who appear to be healthy and in the midst of great success. Dejection looks like the twin of life. There are so many who suffer sickness because of malnutrition and lack of food; many get sick due to the use of polluted water or in many cases the scarcity of clean water. Some diseases are homegrown and are transmitted to others through virulent infection. Aside from health needs some people have financial problems; others, psychological, and still many more have moral crisis. Still others lose their jobs or their money, their homes and their land. How do we look at suffering? Or better still, when in the midst of suffering, how do people look at life and those around us. How good have we been? How inspiring have been our life and behavior?

When people, especially responsible leaders, have moral problems, they drag down many others who will have to suffer with them as their victims. The tragedy behind moral problems is that when people fail to recognize the difference between right from what is wrong, good from what is bad, just from what is unjust, between what is honest from what is dishonest, between what is theirs from what belongs to others, good is no longer differentiated from evil. And the suffering from injustice spreads to erode the family or national culture, economy and ethics.

The worst part in a moral tragedy is that even if the difference between right and wrong is recognized through earlier education and training, if the people or their leaders do not have the courage to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong, the moral disaster worsens as we today see and experience. Responsibility? Who is responsible? As a result we continue to ask why there are people living in cardboard shanties, dirty squatter districts and homes under bridges within spitting distance from modern homes, condominiums and sky-scrapping office towers in cities with Christian communities? (Deus Caritas Est, 20).

The Mystery of Suffering and Death: a Destiny, a Cycle or a Way.

Why do people have to suffer so much and die the way they already had lived, as helpless victims?

We need the lessons from the Desert! Are we surprised that there are solutions waiting for us in the desert?

When Pharaoh, King of Egypt, allowed the chosen people to go free, God did not lead them straight to the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearest way, instead God rerouted them toward the Red Sea by way of the desert road. (Exodus 13:17-18). It was by the miraculous crossing of the sea that the people would be saved from their enemies, but, surprise of surprises, it must be in the desert that they were to be saved from themselves. It was one thing to be saved from the enemies, because enemies could harm any one from outside; but selfishness, greed, lust and pride, these hurt the person from within. Conversion requires more than a place, called a desert, no matter how rough and cruel. Internal purification comes from an experience that digs into the person’s consciousness, mind and heart. The desert is a desolate place, while a desert experience is a constant cruel struggle to become what a person should be according to the divine plan of a loving Creator. Conversion is a struggle that takes place in the heart of the person. The slogan at the moment could be “cross your sea of Reeds and be safe”, but “enter your desert in order to be free!” Both these experiences are moments of the Paschal Mystery. Translated into common “lingo” it means “practice makes perfect”. At times it says, “no pain, no gain”. Still others add, “Bite the bullet now, in a little while, you will be grinning from ear to ear.” Hope is surely coming after suffering as assured us both by experience and the assurance of the Psalmist when he said, “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn”. (Psalm 30).

Paschal Mystery’s More Meanings.

So what is this Paschal Mystery again? The Passover Event can mean different things to different people. Radically, whoever undergoes the paschal episode experiences the same pain or equal moments of death and glory in the triumph of a “new life”. To the Israelites the first meaning of the Paschal Mystery is the Jewish feast that memorializes the liberation of the people from the slavery in Egypt, when God came to defeat their enemies but He “passed over” safely the homes of the Israelites who marked their homes with the blood of the lamb. The children of Israel were spared the death that was inflicted on Egypt. The Paschal Meal that they celebrated calls to mind and heart the meal they ate while God took vengeance on the enemies of the Jews.

Applied to Jesus Christ our Lord, Paschal Mystery has the fullest meaning for it was about the time of His death that the lamb was being prepared at the temple (John 19:31), and this was the death He was always predicting when the Son of man was to be arrested, put to death and would rise up in full dignity and honor. He even pronounced the law of the Pasch that would apply to all created life when He said, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if dies, it will yield a hundredfold”. (John 12:24). Sacrifice and hard work are the only way to success and rich harvest.

Liturgically the Paschal Mystery finds its perfect form of worship in the Church. The saving mystery of the Church is present to the worshippers when the Paschal Mystery is proclaimed and is at the same time accomplished. The Holy Eucharist stands as the highest form of worship because it recalls and makes present again the Sacrifice, Death and Triumphant Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. In Baptism the baptized person plunges into the mystery that is Jesus that through the baptismal water the new Christian dies to sin with him, is buried with him and rises with Him to new life.

But the fourth meaning is the most heartrending and the most expansive of all possible meanings for the Paschal Mystery (the passage of the Israelites and the experience of Jesus), because whenever, wherever and however the experience of sin, shame, pain, poverty, sickness, frustrations, death (real or vicarial) touches any of us humans, then we, like Jesus and everyone else after Him, are passing over to some better level of being human. We cannot escape the Paschal passage. We need to go to the desert and learn to withdraw from our attachments to greed and then rise free from within. Unless through discipline we are freed from selfishness, all our choices will be complete self-seeking.

Describing a Desert: A Place and an Experience.

One of the best descriptions of a desert or a wilderness is to say that it is an arid place with hardly any vegetation and no big animal life. The desert is dry, quiet and frightening place. Earlier it was said that desert was a place of punishment.

It is also a place where people who get lost could die for not knowing how to survive the challenges brought about by the very unfriendly surrounding. There are, however, some travelers who accidentally land in a wasteland, suffer wounds, with hardly any food or drink, and yet could come out of the harrowing experience as better individuals. In the desert, people learn caution and the exercise of care and provision together with the practical study and suggestions of winds, clouds and dust storms.

It is in a trying situation like in the desert that one learns how to expect change, how to anticipate deprivation in order to adjust to another need. A pain like this is experienced by the poor and those who live in constant need. Theirs is a desert that occurs as part of daily life. A person who gets lost in the middle of a desert with no help is literally condemned to death. But happily in the plan of God and in the most common of experiences no one is completely alone. No Man is an island, so the saying goes. Thus in the real desert places, as also in real desert experiences, man is a brother; and woman is a sister to everyone.

In the desert, when one is in charge of the water, he not only protects the water containers and visits the water source, everyone helps in caring for water; all conserve the precious resource. This is the great lesson the desert experience teaches. The desert is like a little town where every resident cares for the health and cleanliness of every home, yard and the streets. The desert has known how to inspire and protect the common discipline for the good of everyone. The experience of the wilderness teaches (us) that if man cooperates God will assure (all) that nothing will be wanting. “For forty years I led you in the wilderness; the clothes on your back did not wear out and the sandals did not wear off your feet”. (Deuteronomy 29:5).

In difficult experiences and great needs the human person recognizes and learns the miracle of sharing. In the desert the cactus shares its water and sap with the passers-by. And when the cacti group themselves in plenty they are called an oasis, because they provide relief, assistance and drink for anyone in need.

Sharing is the rule in desert-like existence. It is not only in the oasis where obvious sharing is seen; in every desert tent or shade, people know how to part from a bit of what they have in order to be given to another who otherwise would only watch him nibble at his food. No one is a spectator in the desert. Everyone is a sharer even only of the long shadow cast by giant cactus. In the desert everyone is really a child of the same Father; s/he is both a receiver and giver at the same roles of receiving and giving all the time. The desert is so vast that every now and then man has to look at that “waste” where people thought the wild vista has nothing to show except the dryness and beauty of the sand dunes. After having seen the oasis and its cacti, one looks at the fruit trees (mangoes, bananas, apples and oranges) in a lowland orchard with different eyes. They are not just things of beauty in color and shape, the trees give their fruits to share with those in need. The biggest lesson of the desert is the ability to share… to share its experience, to share its fruits, to give us its beauty, to assure us of hope even beyond the rocks, cacti and oases. The desert experience gives us the ability to hope because its lesson of sharing gives us the gift of peace and joy. If only everyone will share like in the dessert, there should not be reason for any man to steal, and there could be no beggars in our streets. Sharing is the key lesson for everyone in difficult needs and moments. (Say this now when the financial and economic crisis is about ready to swallow us).

This is one important phase of the Paschal Mystery that is given to us. And if sharing is costly (of even at the littlest equivalent of “a crumb” of a smile or half a cup of water), you can just imagine the shock of your entire life when at the end, facing Jesus Christ, King of Heaven this time, just before he lets you enter the Kingdom saying this to you, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, sick and you cared for me … Come, you are the blessed of my Father … the Kingdom is prepared for you”. (Matthew 25:34-35). This happy and triumphant experience will be especially for the loyal Christian. This is the very reason for the passing over experience that we call Paschal Mystery.

Knowing One’s Self in the Desert and in the Experience.

The difficult part of the Paschal Mystery reflection is to recognize that as we look at our own desert experiences or moments of trial and pain, we do not recognize ourselves in the picture Jesus painted for us in the scenario of judgment and reward. Precisely the purpose of painful (desert) experiences is to allow the struggles to dig into our psyche, mind and soul not for the purpose of punishing us but in order to purify and to convert us from sin and the disappointments we discover in ourselves. This is the meaning of the purifying experience of the heart in a desert. The inner confrontation is not much different from the holy anger of Moses who threw the idol of the golden calf into the fire, and grounded it into powder. Moses knew how prone to evil the people were and so the scolding and shattering of idols came abruptly in the desert. (Exodus 32:1-35).

Leave the shores of the Sea of Reeds and enter the desert where much changing and reform await us there. (Compare the Sea of Reeds and EDSA and the great fear of leaving the paved avenue and drawing near our deserts of conversion and personal reforms.)

Similarly, we enter our many deserts, reviewing the many moral or immoral landmarks in our lives, and we do not look for rest or escape. What we do is to confront ourselves with our ambitions, dreams selfishness, and why not, with our failures and sins. Like the Israelites we crossed “our sea of Reeds” convinced that we were saved, only to discover that we brought our slavery with us outside Egypt into our perceived freedom as we carried through life our own “idols” wrapped in money, ambition, craftiness, dishonesty, sexual license and vices. Successfully we had hidden our attachment to wealth as if it could replace the role of the Almighty One in our life. People still worship idols in their leaders, in their actors and performers, in their comic characters, seek them in pleasures, in drugs, sex, vices, and wastefulness of gambling that destroyed the spirit of sharing. The Paschal Mystery shows us that we are still in the process of passing through the very depths of this crossing over and we do so with courage, meaning and hope.

Change or Maturity in the Desert.

One of the miracles of a desert experience is its ability to change people. It is in the desert where God can dig into the soul, mind and the heart of the person. No one is beyond the touch and the voice of God. Absolutely no body can hide or stay away from a God who hunts even the wickedest of humans. “Who told you that you are naked? ….your brother’s blood cried out to me from the soil!” (Genesis 3:11; 4:10). We need the desert experience in order to convert and change us. It was said of Gomer, the unfaithful wife of Hosea who turned out to be a harlot that at the height of her infidelities God told the prophet, “I will lure her and will lead her into the desert, and there I will speak to her heart.” (Hosea 2:16). What was most beautiful about this narrative was that the forgiving prophet Hosea used the conversion of her repentant wife as the image of a converted people Israel. “From there (the desert) I will give her the vineyards she had (before), and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:17).

Incredible are the experiences of men who were locked in jail for years and years, and then were released back to society completely different persons. Some call it conversion; others say they were reformed or they matured through suffering. The truth is that the desert experience of failure, pain and deprivation had made the difference in the blossoming of another individual nearly taken as hopeless and permanently meaningless and useless in society. Everyone needs the desert experience in order to mature.

Afraid of disappointments? One writer said this, “Unhappy the rich man for whom everything is successful. God has abandoned him to his prosperity. Happy the one whom God visits in events. As long as it is necessary, He invites us to go beyond self and to come to our senses” (Jean Laplace, SJ). Have we easily forgotten that the child who often stumbles runs the fastest as an athlete later? We must not be afraid to fall. The horror for the Christian is never to rise after every failure; this means alongside hope Christ was lost.

Through out all this reflection the lesson we get as we go beyond the desert as a place is to welcome the spirit and the heart of the desert experience. The pains, fears and trials in it are never inviting, as the Lord Jesus Himself once asked the Father, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup (of suffering) pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will”. (Matthew 26:39). Jesus himself shuddered at the approach of his death. If only the grain of wheat could speak, it would beg the sower, not here, not there. “I do not like to fall and to rot and to die … yet”. Everyone must fall before s/he can get up and rise. Towards growth and development this is the only road to tread. And because Jesus would take the same route He had the courage to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life”.

Some people, however, emerge from the desert better prepared for life, a long struggle for success. Still others are purified in a wilderness experience. It is a school then where one’s experiences hope rather than condemnation. The desert brings out the best in a person. Conversion takes place in a desert where the deprivation from essentials forces the individual to look at one’s weakness and see rare alternatives to present needs. A desert experience teaches the virtue of sharing because the practice of selfishness spells death even to the greedy. Patience, understanding, humility and forgiveness are among other lessons from the desert. When one is aware of discomfort he soon learns the truth that s/he is just as weak as the others.

Paraphrasing Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel according to St. John Chapter 12, Verse 24 (which is the heart of Paschal Mystery Law), Thomas a Kempis reminds us that “he who knows how to suffer will enjoy much peace; he will lord over the world, is a friend of Christ and will become the heir of heaven”.

God Bless!

Archbishop of Manila


Copied from: The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila Website


One thought on “Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales: The Desert Beyond the Place

  1. Wow!!!

    Kapatid thank you for posting this… I will read it again and again in my reflections for the Holy Week…. Wala na akong masasabi, the good Cardinal has said it all… 🙂

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