The Lord Dwells in Deserted Places
Fifth Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne’s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

On the anniversary of my ordination to the deaconate this year, I drove my daughter to see One Direction at the Molson Amphitheatre at Ontario Place. Afterwards, my wife and I would look for a place to have dinner and celebrate that anniversary. But everywhere we turned, every street, every stop light, every corner, there was noise. Every restaurant we entered, noise, loud pounding music. Every store you walk into now, noise. In one store, there is a television set positioned every 50 feet or so with someone delivering a message, trying to get you interested in whatever is on special in that section of the store. We settled on a restaurant, but there were 3 television sets, all positioned in each corner, each one on a different channel. Afterwards we went out for a coffee, but once again, we found ourselves having to raise our voices over the music to talk to one another.

There is only one place in that entire area of Bloor West Village where one can get some kind of reprieve from all the noise, and it wasn’t the local parish Church. I’m referring to the cemetery. They are always quiet places because they are deserted. No one wants to be there; they remind people of the shortness and brevity of their lives; they can bring us in touch with our radical vulnerability to death, and so they are deserted.

Christ calls his apostles to leisure. The gospel says: “…and they had no leisure even to eat.” There’s no doubt, his understanding of leisure is very different than our own. The word leisure brings to the minds of most people images of amusement parks or exhibitions, places filled with music, commotion, and activity. But Christ calls them to a deserted place, and deserted places are without commotion, precisely because they have been deserted. They are places of silence, and there is very little around that attracts attention, like the desert. Deserted places are uninteresting, unattractive, and yet that is precisely where Christ calls us to be alone with him. The reason is that he is not found in the noise and attractions outside of us, but he is found within. As he says in Luke: “The Kingdom of God is within you”. And the interior of the soul is the most deserted of all places; very few think to go there.

What’s interesting about this gospel is that “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them”. They went ahead to the deserted place to which Jesus and his Apostles were headed, and there they waited for them to arrive.

All the great ancient philosophers knew that happiness had to do with contemplation. The end or purpose of our lives, said Aristotle, is to contemplate the highest things, and in so doing we emulate the gods as much as that is possible for us. For Aristotle, that’s the greatest happiness man can discover here. For the Jews, the workweek is an emulation of the One God who is creator of all that exists. In the first creation story, God creates the universe and all that is in it in six days, and at the end, God looks at all He had made and indeed, it was very good. Then God rests on the seventh day, the Sabbath.

This of course is an allegory, a profoundly complicated one that is not meant to be taken literally, but interpreted allegorically. What does it mean? In part, it means that work is holy. To work is to co-create, to participate in God’s work of creating. But watch an artist after he finishes his work. What does he do? He stands back and contemplates it. He delights in his work. His purpose was to create a work of beauty, and he is delighted if he succeeds. God beholds all he created and indeed, it was very good. God delights in the image of Himself that is there, in His creation.

The Sabbath day is a day for contemplation. The very purpose of all activity is to contemplate. And Aristotle had it partly right: to contemplate not the highest things, but the highest thing, God Himself. All that is truly beautiful in creation is only a very distant reflection of the Supreme Beauty, the source of all that is Beautiful, which is God Himself. He is Beauty Itself without limits. To behold Him is to achieve perfect beatitude. Heaven is not an eternal club med vacation, it is the Vision of God as He is in Himself: the Beatific Vision. The joy of heaven is in the eternal beholding of the face of the Supremely Beautiful, the One God and Father of us all.

Christ calls us to a deserted place, a place to which no one would be drawn because there is nothing there to attract us, and the reason he calls us there is that complete rest is found not in the contemplation of what is less than God, but in the contemplation of God Himself, and this world, no matter how beautiful, is not God. Rather, God dwells in the deserted realm of the interior universe within. Like that crowd, we have to make our way there and wait for him to show himself.

So many people do not go looking for God because they are not yet aware of their own radical need for God. It’s only when something happens that brings them in touch with that poverty that they begin to open themselves up to God. But it’s that recognition of one’s own poverty that moves the heart of God. The gospel today ends: “He then began to teach them many things”. Only the poor in spirit are taught by Christ, for only they can be taught by Christ, and what they are taught are things hidden from the learned and the sophisticated.

The other deserted place where Christ can always be found, a place where most people would rather not congregate, is around those who are poor, sick, and suffering. The Lord dwells in the poor, the sick, and the suffering. The divinity is like water, which is the most powerful force in nature. In areas where there are flash floods, large 18-wheeler rigs can be lifted up and carried along while the driver, sitting on the roof of his cab, helplessly looks on. But water also seeks the lowest place. It penetrates the slightest cracks and leaks into the basement. The Lord, like water, always seeks the lowest places. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs”. Christ is the kingdom of heaven, and he is most comfortable in the heart of the poorest and most helpless and least among us. Mother Theresa was so fond of saying that Jesus disguises himself in the poor. And Father Jean Pierre de Caussade writes: “If we know that someone in disguise is really our king we shall behave very differently toward him than will someone who sees only an ordinary man. He will treat him as such. ...What others fear and flee from, we shall welcome with open doors. The clothing is shabby and mean to the ordinary eye, but we shall respect the royal majesty hidden under it and feel a deepening of our love the more hidden and abject our king is. I cannot describe what the heart feels when it accepts the divine will so apparently diminished in power, so humble and so pitiful. How profoundly moved Mary’s loving heart was when she saw the poverty of her God, lying whimpering and trembling on a bundle of hay in a manger! If we could ask the people of Bethlehem what they thought of this child, we know what answer we should get. Yet, had he been born in a palace surrounded with all the trappings of a prince, they would have rushed to pay him honor.”

It’s a wonderful privilege to be called to work among the sick, to be called to be a nurse, for example. Every day one gets to serve Christ. What a tragedy it is the thought of having spent your life working among the sick, and never once recognizing the Lord of life dwelling in them, under their disguise, and thus never really delighting in that vocation, regarding the patients as more of a pain to deal with as opposed to an honour to serve.

But the only way we’ll be given the eyes to see him there under his disguise is if we first find him hiding in the midst of our own dark interior. Once he turns on the light within, we’ll see his face, we’ll know his presence, we’ll know the strange love that he has for us, one that loves us as if there is only one of us in the world to love. Nothing will matter after that, except finding ways to love Him back. And since we will have become familiar with his face, we’ll discover him quite easily in those who are deserted, deserted because others find them uncomfortable to be around, because like the cemetery, they remind us of our vulnerability to sickness and death.

That’s why the works of mercy quite naturally flow from a life of contemplation. The modern hospital was an invention of the Church; the monasteries were the first hospitals. When we understand this connection between discovering the Lord within our own interior and recognizing him outside of us hidden in the sick and suffering, the historical association between the hospital and the monastery will not be difficult to understand.

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