Several years ago, I went to see Philip Gröning’s movie, “Into Great Silence,” chronicling the life of Carthusian monks, the most austere religious order in the Catholic Church.   It is a silent film without music or commentary, long but riveting. It shows the monks, who live in almost total silence, at prayer, tasks, rituals, and weekly outdoor excursions. Following the spirit of their founder St. Bruno (11th c) into the “Desert of Chartreuse” near Grenoble, France, they have chosen to seclude themselves in their monastery.  They have chosen to enter “into a windless zone of impenetrable stillness” (Joseph Roccasalvo, Chartreuse, 105).

Midway through the viewing, a woman sitting behind me, rose in an agitated state. “Where are you going,” whispered her companion?  ”They’re not doing anything,” she blurted out, shattering the deep, profound silence in the theater.  Quickly, she bolted for the exit.

In the Right Time and Place

Saul was a man of three worlds, destined to become God’s ambassador to the Gentiles.  He was an Orthodox Jew of the Diaspora from Tarsus in southeastern Turkey.  His family sent him to Jerusalem to study with Gamaliel, a leading authority in the Sanhedrin. Saul was also a Hellenized Jew steeped in Greek culture; he spoke and wrote koine Greek. Finally, Saul was a Roman citizen.  Proudly did this learned, urbane, and cosmopolitan man wear his threefold identity.  

The Narrative

One day on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, Saul was thrown to the ground, encircled by a great light.  He heard the voice of Christ asking, “Saul, Saul, why are persecuting me?” Stunned, he replied, “Who are you, sir?”  The voice directed him to visit Ananias, a disciple, where Paul recovered his sight—he had been blinded during the vision—and was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:13ff).  Paul then began preaching Christ in the synagogue.  How could this be?   In Jerusalem, the persecutor was preaching to the persecuted disciples.  Then there were the Hellenists with whom he argued.  They were determined to kill him. What to do?  He retreated into the Arabian desert and stayed there for three years. But in the desert, there was nothing to do, to paraphrase the woman in the theater.  It was now the Spirit’s turn to speak gently, to mold and shape Paul into his supple instrument.  Paul had simply to cooperate with God’s innovating activity in the school of the Holy Spirit. On January 25th, the Church celebrates Paul’s conversion of heart.

The Desert

The Scriptures record several instances of people being led into the desert.  For the Jews, the desert experience was a mixed blessing.  The Lord brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.  But during the forty-year trek, they experienced physical hardship, and their faith wavered and weakened. Periodically, they worshiped idols.  There was nothing to do in the desert but press on to the finish and trust in the innovating activity of God.

Meaning of the Desert

For forty days, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert over material things, power, and vainglory. Filled with the Spirit from beginning to end, he emerged prepared for his mission.

The desert is the archetypal symbol of a world hostile to God, to nourishment and to growth.  It is subject to Satan, and to the death-dealing world to which the Messiah brought new life. The desert is a place of:

1. Physical stripping. Here is one description about the first Carthusians: “Blaise imagined the seven hermits with scythes and axes, cutting their way through the hostile, unyielding forest.  Gradually, they made their way into the dreaded wilderness, only to reach a place terrifying for its aridity among boulders spewed forth by volcanoes eons ago.  Having reached their destination, the seven hermits began building cabins from branches and a wooden chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Huts” (Roccasalvo, Chartreuse, 105-6). 

2.  Psychological struggle.  One struggles against fatigue, discomfort, thirst and hunger, loneliness, against the devil, the world, and oneself.  It is the struggle for peace.

3.  Spiritual struggle.  Retreat into the desert prompts the person to discern one’s vocation, one’s mission, one’s purpose in life—all the essentials.

4.  Wonder.  If one can endure the push ahead trusting in Providence, then eventually something beautiful will come out of solitude–a new attitude and vision, a new mandate and mission, a new and vibrant life.

Paul’s Personality and Physical Appearance

Filled with the Spirit, Paul emerged from the desert “a new creation.” The charism received at Damascus was deepened in the desert, which served as the springboard impelling him to travel to the major cities of the Mediterranean, preaching the good news of the crucified and risen Christ.

Due to frail health, Paul dragged himself from place to place—ten thousand miles’ worth—adapting to hardship with the words: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).  He cut quite a figure, this urbane firebrand with a long, hooked nose, bandy-legged and balding, a man, driven, as though running a race (2 Cor 12:7).

Whenever he left a local Church, he wrote a letter to each of them.  The kerygma reflected his total love for the Lord whom he had never met in person.  Their content became part of the Church’s canon of belief; it became scripture. How to absorb this incredible fact!  Paul had no books at his disposal to research Christ his subject-matter, no mentors to guide him.  The gospels hadn’t been written. Where did he gain his knowledge about Jesus Christ? It was in the desert that his life-vision was formed and honed.  Here is Paul, the Church’s first theologian whose charism is a gift to the entire Church.     

Paul’s Literary Style Different from His Theology

Paul’s eloquence coupled with wisdom and truth attracted the Gentiles.  His gift lies in his ability to be all things to all people.  His style and language are highly individualistic because of an intense personality, impetuous, single-minded, indefatigable, irrepressible, unflinching, and decisive. He adapts and adjusts his style, now rhetorical, now dogmatic, but also poetic.  Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is a masterpiece on human love. In the sixteenth century, Orlando di Lasso set to a polyphonic motet a portion of the Ode to Love.  The music is a beautiful interpretation of the text.

To the Corinthians, his problem child, he railed against fornication and incest.  He rebuked the Galatians for favoring a new ideology instead of holding fast to the gospel he brought them (Gal 1:6-8). He tells the Philippians how much he loves them, and how much he loves being loved by them; “In the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, they shine like stars in the world” (Phil 1:3ff; 12-13). On all his missions, Christ, the preacher, becomes the preached.

Paul tells us very little about himself except that he has been caught up in the third heaven, and that a thorn was given to him in the flesh to buffet him (2 Cor: 12:1-3; 7-10).The Roman authorities executed him with St. Peter in Rome around A.D. 67. That feast day is celebrated on June 29th. 

Through the ages, artists have loved to use Paul as a subject for their masterpieces.  He has been depicted in painting and sculpture, mosaics, icons, and stained glass.

The Desert Today

Carthusian monasteries are closed to the public. In 1957, a museum was created at the heart of the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble and has already welcomed 5.5 million visitors. Other groups like the Trappists and Benedictines welcome those who seek something beautiful from retreating into a desert experience.     

Where is the desert today?  Is it within? “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,” writes Shakespeare. Is it without as well?

What of the woman who couldn’t bear to see what she considered the monks doing nothing?  It should be noted that Catholic monasteries have long waiting lists, very long waiting lists, of men and women who are eager to retreat into the desert, if only for a weekend, there to meet God or their unknown God.  They long to savor the silence, to listen to Gregorian chant, and to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, to reflect, to pray for their families and for direction in their lives, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit as Paul was in his desert. Or, simply to be in the presence of a monastic community that witnesses to Transcendence.  Finally, to emerge refreshed as new creations.

Out of Paul’s Desert … a Garden of Wonder and Delight

Paul’s letters are surely a garden of wonder and delight.  His memorable expressions are flowers bringing their color and vibrancy into our lives.  In the end, it was through his letters that St. Paul changed the course of history.  Some verses are suggested below for prayer.

1 Thessalonians
4:4 What God wants is for you to be holy.
4:11 Live quietly attending to your own business and earning your living.
5:2  The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

5:6   What matters is that faith makes its power felt through love.
5:14   If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community.
6:2 You should carry one another’s burdens and troubles, and thus to fulfill the law of Christ.

Letters to the Corinthians.  In all, there are four.  
Letter One is lost.  
1 Corinthians is Letter Two.
Letter Three, the ‘letter of tears,’ about the Corinthians, is lost.  
2 Corinthians is Letter Four

1 Corinthians
1:25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
2: 3  I preach only  Christ and Christ crucified.
3: 16-17  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you?  The temple of God is sacred, and you are that temple.
5: 7  So get rid of all the old yeast and make yourselves into a completely new batch of bread.
12 & 13 Both chapters
2 Corinthians
5:17 If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
5:20 We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

1:3  I thank my God whenever I think of you; every time I pray for you, I pray with joy.
2: 5-11  The Hymn of Self-Emptying
3:12, 14 I am still running, trying to capture the prize, and I strain ahead for what is still to come. ... I am racing for the finish, for the prize.

2:10  We are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as he had meant us to live it from the beginning.
3:20-21 He whose power is at work in us is powerful enough and more than powerful enough to carry out his purpose beyond all our hopes and dreams (Ronald Knox translation)..  

5:21 Where sin did abound, grace did more abound.
6:8  We believe that having died with Christ, we shall also live with Christ.
7:15-16 I cannot understand my own behavior.  I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate.
8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?