A few weeks ago I shared the idea of levels of scriptural interpretation with you all. I explored a mystical interpretation of Jesus turning water in to wine. You can read that article HERE. Today I would like to use that same kind of interpretation and explore the Exodus story of wandering in the desert and how it relates to the season of Lent.
For many Christians and Jews throughout the centuries the Exodus story has been an allegory of the soul’s search for God. It is seen as a type and example of each individual soul’s journey towards healing and goodness. In this mystical understanding, slavery in Egypt is understood as slavery to sin. The story begins with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and so do we begin our quest for spiritual healing in a state of slavery to sin.
In the bible sin is referred to as a kind of slavery because it compels us to do things against our own wills. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
The state of the soul living in sin is symbolised by slavery in Egypt because to be in a state of sin is to lose our freedom. It may be helpful to think of addiction here and how it compels us to do things we don’t really want to do. That’s not the only way that we can lose our freedom, however.
Anger also makes us do things we regret later. Jealousy makes us act in ways we never would otherwise. Fear can make people do crazy things. In these moments, we are not in control of ourselves and therefore we are under the control of something else.
And so the spiritual journey can be understood to begin with liberation from slavery. Just as the Israelites began their journey by breaking free from the bonds of Egypt, so do we begin our inner journey by no longer allowing our passions to control us.
This liberation from slavery is not typically something which happens in a flash moment. Though there are times when God speaks to someone and they instantly change, for the most part we shake ourselves free from these chains over time and with patience.
One of the greatest of the church fathers, in my opinion anyway, is Gregory of Nyssa. You may remember him from my recent series on his holy sister Macrina. Gregory wrote an amazing commentary on the life of Moses which goes into beautiful detail about all the different meanings of the Exodus narrative. We don’t have the space here to unpack his entire book but I want to bring up one of his most important insights.
In the early church many Christians understood their faith as one in which they sought spiritual perfection. Perfection in this case doesn’t mean having perfect teeth or perfect grades or a perfect lawn. It was described by one desert father as purity of heart. It is to have perfect intentions and a perfect love for God and neighbour.
Because God is perfect it is towards perfection that we strive. The perfection of truth, the perfection of goodness, the perfection of beauty. This may sound strange or even prideful to us today but it actually comes straight from Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. He says “be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Gregory of Nyssa, the guy who wrote the mystical interpretation of the life of Moses, talked about perfection in beautiful terms. Using a mystical interpretation he looked at the part of the story where Moses actually gets to see God. In the story Moses prayed that he could see the glory of God and God responded by saying:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
God’s goodness, which is the same as perfection in this sense, passes before Moses (who is the symbol of us on our journey) and he does not get to see God’s face. God passes by Moses as if leading the way for him to follow.
For Gregory, this means that we always strive towards perfection but that we never see the other side of it. The perfection of the human being is found in the continual movement towards God, who always leads us forward towards the good. Because God is infinite, we can not attain God. Instead, the perfection of the human soul, what it was created to do, is to move forever into the infinite well of goodness, truth, and beauty which is God.
The perfection, or perhaps you could say fulfilment, of the human being is always a journey. We wander through the wilderness, and may even find our way to the promised land, but at no point do we ever reach the end of God’s goodness. This is a profound gift to the soul: that we can always move deeper and deeper into the heart of God and never reach an end to discovering new grace.
Indeed the story of Moses and the Exodus continues to reveal new truths and find new expressions over and over again. I would like to switch focus now to another, perhaps more familiar, mystical interpretation of the story. The season of Lent is, in a certain sense, a mystical interpretation of the Exodus as well.
In the gospels Jesus begins his ministry by fasting in the desert for 40 days, clearly mirroring the 40 years of the Exodus. The version in Matthew goes into a fair bit of detail but I would like to start with the incredibly short and compact version of the story given in Mark. After Jesus is baptised in the Jordan river by John, the text reads:
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
The Spirit of God drove the Israelites into the wilderness through the waters of the red sea, which can be interpreted as the act of baptism. Both Jesus and the Israelites are driven into the wilderness and both must pass through the waters of baptism first. In the Exodus story, the Egyptian soldiers who are chasing them and trying to keep them in the bonds of slavery are the sins of the soul. They are drowned and washed away in the waters of baptism.
But although they have been baptised in the water, temptation will still confront them in the wilderness. The Israelites were tempted to reject God when they built a golden calf to worship in God’s place. Jesus was tempted to bow down and worship Satan.
As we progress in the spiritual life many things will want to claim our worship. Money, power, lust, revenge, fraud, and any other evil can become something which we worship in God’s place. If we choose to do so, then we are no longer free and we once again become slaves in Egypt.
The dialogue between Jesus and Satan in Matthew’s account gives us insight into how we can best respond to the temptations which we face. Evagrius of Pontus, one of the desert fathers who wrote profoundly about the inner journey, has a book called Antirrhêtikos which is usually translated today as “Talking Back.” It uses the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness as a framework for a monastic way of life. I wrote about this book last year during Lent and you can click HERE to learn more about it.
That article includes links to a few other articles I have written about the demons themselves and how we can best understand them. Evagrius and his teaching became a major influence on John Cassian, who himself became the foundation of Western monasticism in general and Celtic monasticism in particular. Pelagius also had some wonderful things to say about how to deal with our inner demons. He gives us a practice which he calls Keeping Watch that fits into this framework very well.
The spiritual journey into the desert where we confront the forces of evil is a major theme in Celtic Christianity and is one which my friend Tony explored in last week’s article which you can read HERE. The Celtic view of spirituality is one which looks deeply at sin and redemption. The healing of sin and destruction of demons is foundational to the tradition.
And so, dear sisters and brothers, may this season of Lent be one in which you follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Take the time to look deep within yourself and try to decide if there are any old habits, ancient resentments, or unwanted thoughts which you could leave behind. Talk back to your inner demons, do not let them control you, and never forget to ask God for help.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends or on social media. If you would like to explore the Celtic tradition of spiritual direction with its emphasis on original goodness and personal responsibility, then feel free to contact Justin to learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org or if you are receiving this in an email, simply respond to the email.