Renewal is often experienced as a highly emotional event, spoken of as a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. People remember the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 or the histories of revivals in which people fell down as overcome by the Spirit and either rested in the Lord or cried out as feelings were drawn out of them. Renewal has such a positive image that is sought after – for who can not want their faith and life renewed? However it does seem a bit removed from the ordinary yet alone the difficult seasons of life. It is pertinent to ask whether renewal has anything to say when things are tough. Is it possible to have renewal in the desert?
It is maybe helpful to ask what is going on in renewal events. They may be high on emotion but they are (at best) also high on life change. My experience was of repeated experiences of the Spirit that led to a changed outlook and ultimately changed vocation. It was if some of my hidden self came to light and there was a fresh freedom to follow Christ in new ways. Renewal is about transformation of people so that their true, creative, life-giving selves come to the fore with Christ, and all that has held them back is drawn back and removed. Think about how the disciples changed after Pentecost: no longer locked away but confidently speaking out. Suddenly all that Jesus taught them came alive and put into action. This is inevitably emotional but leads to new steady ways of life and witness. We might ask: may not there be other ways to such results, also empowered by the same Spirit?
Interestingly, one of the ways in which Thomas Merton explores how such a true self comes to greater light is through contemplation in the desert. It is in the desert that we are enabled to find our true identity in Christ and to walk out in compassionate freedom. This too is emotional, but through the struggles that come when things in life seem to be taken away from us. The key Bible passage is Luke 4 in which Jesus is sent in the power of the Spirit into the wilderness. Here is a tough uncovering of true motivations amidst internal and external pressures, with Satan there to knock Jesus off course. The desert way is one very much discovered alongside struggles within the wider culture and the struggle for fresh Christian identity at times when even the church seems to have surrendered to cultural ways of progress. Renewal also comes as we find the Spirit driving us into places of loss, of struggle, of weakness and inability – if we allow that Spirit to shape us around the Word, around Christ, unlocking our true selves which are different to the expectations of those around us. For “water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:6).
Here is a two-fold way of renewal – through experience of light, joy and creativity; and through loss, pain and struggle. Both are a part of the Spirit’s work in helping us discover more of who we are with Christ. Both have an inevitable emphasis on the love of God that is experienced. It is to be enfolded in God’s love that melts our hearts and leaves us full of transforming wonder. It is to trust in God’s love that makes sense of the desert places and enables them to be places of transforming hope. It is the cataphatic and apophatic ways of traditional spirituality that are held together by the one Holy Spirit who searches our hearts to affirm and challenge. It is a journey in hope through all things.
So let us pray for renewal… but being careful not to tell the Lord which of these patterns we need to follow! Our heart must be set on the transforming love of God more than the ways in which we will be led to discover it. After all, such is the risk of following the living God.