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  • Father David M. Knight

Jesus says, “Run!”

Matthew tells us that after his temptations in the desert, “when Jesus heard that John had been

arrested, he withdrew to Galilee” (Matthew 4:12).

It was time for Jesus to start revealing himself as Messiah. In Matthew’s Gospel the temptations are followed by a further revelation of Jesus’s identity as announced by the angel and revealed by the visit of the Magi (Matthew 1:1 to 2:12). And he starts by running away!

Matthew tells us that right after coming out of the desert Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” This was to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy:

Land of Zebulun and of Naphtali along the sea beyond the Jordan, heathen Galilee:

a people living in darkness has seen a great light. On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen (Matthew 4:12, 15-16).

The Greek word translated here as “withdrew”—anachoreo, from which our English word “anchorite,” hermit, comes—is used four times of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel. Each time it is in a context of withdrawing from conflict or opposition (see 4:12; 12:15; 14:14; 15:21). In most cases it is clear that the withdrawing is for the sake of greater aloneness and solitude.

The lesson is clear enough. As “Master of the Way” Jesus is teaching us by example that the way to come into the light is to withdraw—for a time, at least—from the darkness. When we experience the turmoil and confusion that arise within us because of emotions, passions, appetites, compulsions or prejudices, the response to this is to go apart and pray. It doesn't matter whether the opposition comes from within ourselves or from others; once we find ourselves in a state of conflict or confusion about the way we should live out the Gospel, our first step when possible should be to “withdraw.”

This withdrawal is to make possible clearer communication with God. We withdraw to be with Jesus. For this reason we distance ourselves from anything that clouds the issue or causes darkness within us, and from whatever distracts us from prayer.

The withdrawal we are talking about is not the same thing as getting away by ourselves to think. What we seek through times of Christian withdrawal is light from Christ. It is not just a matter of quieting our souls so that the knowledge that is within us—some deep, subconscious perception of truth that is already ours—might emerge. There are times when such an exercise is effective; when all we really need to do is get in touch with ourselves, with our own “gut” feelings, in order to know what we want or believe we ought to do. But Christian withdrawal is not simply a technique for achieving inner stillness. The light we seek is not some deeper level of our own consciousness, but that divine and saving light which belongs to Christ alone.

This is a revelation—to ourselves and others—of our identity as humans called and empowered to live the divine life of God. By withdrawing to communicate with God, we are expressing and experiencing the truth that we have another guidance system than that of our human nature.

It is a light which comes from “outside” of us in the sense that it is Christ's light, not ours. And yet it is within us through the life of grace and the Holy Spirit who has been poured out in our hearts. It is a light which is both interior and “other” to us at the same time.

The withdrawal Jesus teaches, therefore, is a positive effort to communicate with the living, personal God. This God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and he continues to reveal himself—as he chooses, and freely—to those who seek him.

To be a disciple means to let oneself be taught.

This means we accept the teaching method of the Master. The method of Jesus was to address our thinking minds with intelligible words, and to live out visibly in his own human actions the truth and the values he came to reveal. And so it is by using our minds to reflect on his words and our imaginations to contemplate his actions on earth that we enter into the school of Jesus as his disciples. This method may lack the thrill of the mysterious and esoteric; it may seem too ordinary and too human to promise great results. But it is the method Jesus chose to employ as “Master of the Way”; and it is the first method which the saints and mystics of Christianity recommend to those who would be his disciples.

No technique enables us to achieve Christian enlightenment, because it is a free gift. The light that enlightens us is a personal communication from God's mind to our own. But since God has chosen, through Jesus, to communicate with us in human words—in the intelligible speech of our own daily language—we are able to enter into communication with his mind and heart simply by taking his words seriously. This involves using our human faculties of memory, intellect and will to recall or re-read what Jesus said; to ask questions about the meaning of his words or gestures, and try to answer them; and to take a stance with our wills toward what we come to understand; that is, to respond with decisions and choices.

When we “go apart” with Christ we allow both our minds and our affections, our thoughts and our desires, to find their true center. By freeing ourselves from the artificial pressures of life in our society we enable the inclinations of our hearts—our graced inclinations—to make themselves felt. We remain free to follow these inclinations or not, but at least we have a clearer idea of what we are drawn to and by what or whom.

As we engage in this process, God assists us from within, of course, by the light and power of his Spirit. If he did not, then Christ's words - no matter how intelligible they are in themselves - would simply leave us inert. They would have no more practical effect on us than poetry on a pig!

Even while we seek divine enlightenment from God, we reveal—to ourselves and others—our identity as humans called and required to be fully human as well as fully divine.

As “Master of the Way,” Jesus teaches us by his own “withdrawal” in the face of conflict and opposition that it is only by the light of prayer that we can see to follow the way along which he would lead us. This withdrawal is neither flight from the world nor a refusal to meet the challenge of life in this world. It is simply an entering into the light of God in order to see how the challenge should best be confronted.

The fact that Christ’s “withdrawal” takes place immediately before he begins his public mission of preaching and teaching (Matthew 4:17) is of special significance, perhaps. It suggests that before we will really be able to choose a life work—or direct to the establishment of God's Kingship on earth the work we have already chosen—we need to “go aside” in some significant way with Christ in prayer.

Few people are able to “withdraw” very long from the life and activity of this world in order to find direction for their lives. But some form of regular, prayerful withdrawal from the pace and conditioning of our culture is both possible and desirable: a few moments of “quiet time” in the day; a “sabbath hour” perhaps, on certain days; a “hermit day” (poustinia) once in a while; a weekend of retreat or spiritual input when the occasion presents itself; some time spent daily reading the Scriptures or other spiritual books. These are all exercises of Christian withdrawal and discipleship. So is the affective withdrawal of our desires from anything that competes with perfect purity of heart.

When we “run away” to give ourselves to this kind of withdrawal with and for Christ the prophecy comes true for us:

A people living in darkness has seen a great light.

On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.

(See A Change Within, Chapter Six: “Accepting Prayer As A Normal Part Of Life,” available on the website ).

Question: How do you cope with the conflicts and confusion that inevitably arise when you are trying as a human to live the divine life of God? Do you seek divine enlightenment? Do you seek it in a human way? Does prayer reveal to you more clearly your divine-human identity?

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