Spirit Embraced in the Desert

Rodrigo García. “Last Days in the Desert,” 2016

The desert can be a hazardous and relentlessly unfriendly place, its landscape forbiddingly sere and barren. And yet it is also the place where women and men have gone to be stripped of the psychological and spiritual obstacles that stand between themselves and God. The Hebrews’ wandering in the wilderness after their release from Egyptian bondage, Elijah’s discovery of God’s still, small voice in his isolated cave, the Qumran community’s self-exile by the Dead Sea, the wilderness sojourn of John the Baptist, Jesus’ own 40 days of testing in the desert, the early desert fathers and mothers: these all attest to the fact that the silent and distractionless desert is where the Spirit can be heard.

Director Rodrigo García takes this as his theme in his remarkable film “Last Days in the Desert.” Both the plot and the dialogue are sparse, gesturing at the fact that the desert is a place for simplicity instead of complexity and listening rather than chattering. Filmed in a location, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (just south of Los Angeles), whose severe and colorless contours are as minimal as the dialogue, “Last Days” invites the viewer to enter into rather than merely observe desert stillness.

García’s film focuses on the final days of Jesus’ (or Yeshua’s, in the film) wilderness sojourn. Portrayed by Scots actor Ewan McGregor, Yeshua experiences moments of deep despair when the Tempter tries to convince him that the Father feels no love for him. But the prodding of the Spirit is stronger than the jabbing of Satan (cleverly cast by García, and played by McGregor, as a kind of doppelganger to Yeshua). Yeshua remains firm in his conviction that he is a beloved child of God, and just as importantly learns that reciprocating God’s love means caring for one’s fellow humans – personified in the film by a troubled desert family onto which Yeshua stumbles and befriends.

The end of the film, a harrowing scene of Yeshua suffering and dying on the Cross, may come as a surprise and perhaps even a shock to viewers. It’s not that we don’t know the story, but rather that there’s no obvious sign of the Resurrection that is to follow. Where, we might ask, is the Spirit in all this? Why was Yeshua tested and found able in the desert only to end like this? But the desert of the Cross, on which Yeshua is stripped of everything – dignity, humanity, life itself – is but the culmination of the stripping he underwent in the Sinai wilderness. And just as the Spirit found him there even in the midst of his suffering, so it finds him on the Cross, too.

All in all, a very good film to watch, think about, and pray over this Pentecost season.

Spirit Rejected in Paris

Laurence Cossé, A Corner of the Veil, trans. Linda Asher. Scribner, 1999. 269 pp. Out-of-print, but used copies available.

Morning in a small town in France. An eccentric recluse, a priest who long ago relinquished public ministry to devote himself to coming up with a solid proof of God’s existence, awakens at his desk. Scattered before him are 7 or 8 hastily scribbled pages.

He reads them with growing excitement. When he finishes, he realizes that he holds in his hands something that could only have come from the Holy Spirit; although the manuscript is in his handwriting, but he has no recollection of composing it. It is an irrefutable, absolutely convincing, inescapably perfect, proof of the existence of God.

With trembling fingers, he stuffs the proof into an envelope and mails it to a renowned theologian who is a member of the Paris-based Casuist Order (a fictional order pretty clearly modeled on the Jesuits). When the theologian reads the manuscript, he too is absolutely convinced by it. So is everyone else he shows it too. At last: the mystery of God, the question that’s haunted humanity from the very beginning – does God or doesn’t God exist? – has been once and for all solved. Hosanna!

This Spirit-revelation is the hub around which Laurence Cossé’s wickedly funny and deeply provocative novel A Corner of the Veil turns. We’re never told what the earth-shaking proof is, but only that it is absolutely indisputable. You’d think that this would be an unimaginable blessing to the world.

But it’s not. As the priests – and the French prime minister, who also reads and believes – discover to their dismay, neither the secular nor ecclesial authorities want the proof disseminated. The former think that if the existence of God were proved beyond a shadow of doubt, the world would descend into chaos. As one of them worries, personal ambition would dissolve and commerce would cease. The world would become a huge monastery of prayer and contemplation. Quelle horreur!

Laurence Cossé

Religious authorities are just as adamantly opposed. Release the proof to the world, they warn, and the authority of the Church is finished. If there’s no longer any doubt about God’s existence, people will lose the fear and desperation that frequently drives them to seek out the help of theologians, priests, and princes of the Church. In an intriguing riff on Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, Cossé’s church authorities argue that people (and certainly the ecclesial establishment) would actually be better off living in the tension of uncertainty when it comes to God.

Although wildly popular in France, the American reception of Cossé’s novel was lukewarm, probably as a consequence of a scathingly unfair review of it in the New York Times. But it’s well worth reading, not only because it’s satire at its best, but also – and primarily – because it invites us to do some serious reflection on the questions it raises. Would we be better off knowing with absolute certainty that God exists, or does our humanity demand the back-and-forth of the doubt-faith dynamic? When the Holy Spirit illuminates – when it lifts a corner of the veil – what are the likely individual and social responses? Cossé suggests that God may be a major inconvenience to authority of any kind, while at the same time being a Source of immense comfort and counsel to individuals. If she’s right, what does that say about a culture for which any sign of divine presence is a threat? Cossé, a secularist with a sharp Gallic sense of humor, seems not to be overly disturbed by this possibility. But those of us who believe ought to be.