by Martha Shepherd.
Although MH Ottawa is a two-woman house, at any given moment it may seem as if four or five people are living here—depending on what we are each reading or listening to.
For instance, during the two-month period I was reading Witness to Hope, George Weigel’s biography of the pope, Arlene became resigned to life with George Weigel and the pope, even going so far as to ask on the way to church, “So what does John Paul II have to say today?”
Recently we have been living with Rosalind Moss, Francis and Judith MacNutt, St. Teresa of Avila, Sister Miriam Randall, and Fr. Bob Wild (a Madonna House priest).
Actually, thanks to Fr. Wild’s article, “The God Who Sees Me,” Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 16:1-15, and 21:1-20) have been the main inhabitants of my mind these last weeks.
I can’t say I ever gave Hagar much thought until Fr. Wild pointed out how her encounter with God in the wilderness as the One who saw her, reveals one of the deepest truths about who God is, and one of the most reliable ways of approaching him in prayer.
Since I read his article, this story has been gradually developing in my mind, somewhat like a photograph emerging from its chemical bath in a darkroom.
One day as I was hanging out the wash, I realized that Hagar’s experience of God is exactly the remedy needed by anyone who has ever been rejected.
To be rejected is to feel unseen, or worse, seen not as oneself.
To know God as “the God who sees me” creates an immunity to the faulty vision of other people.
It was, I believe, when I was vacuuming the stairs that the picture gained further clarity, and I saw that the story of Hagar is the story of anyone who has ever felt used, abused, discarded or invisible.
First off, Hagar is a slave, inherently unimportant. Then Sarah, unable to conceive, tells Abraham to go to her, that I may have a child through her (Gen 16:2). (This would definitely qualify as sexual abuse by today’s standards).
Once her son Ishmael is born, Hagar doesn’t even display any special virtue. Like many people who have been victimized, she uses the first power she ever has badly. She promptly gives Sarah a hard time.
Then when Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac, she (Sarah) wants to get rid of Ishmael. So the illegitimate son and the slave woman are cast out to die. It’s the Promise and the child of the Promise that matter. And since in the Old Testament God wipes out whole cities for the sake of the fulfillment of the Promise, I have never quibbled about the fate of the “unimportant” Hagar and Ishmael.
But as this story sat in my heart, I noticed for the first time that God does quibble. Though he doesn’t say anything in objection to Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael (in fact, he tells Hagar to return and submit to Sarah), he speaks to her. And the Bible gives this so much importance that it is recorded twice.
In the first account Hagar calls God “the One who sees me.” In the second account she’s sitting under a bush waiting for Ishmael to die when God opens her eyes to see a well of water. Because of that divinely-revealed well in the wilderness, Ishmael does not die, but grows up to be the father of a nation.
This is a perfect illustration of what we can expect from God: not that he will stop human abuse, rejection, etc., not that all inequality will cease, but that he himself will care for the broken-hearted, rejected, thrown away, unimportant. He himself will provide.
Hagar is a very minor character in the story of salvation, yet God speaks to her. She, the totally dishonored, is given this greatest of honors.
And through the contemplation of her story, I in turn have been given much deeper security. I find it easy to trust the God who will bother with Hagar and Ishmael.
This is of course a very good thing, since in a sense Arlene and I in Madonna House Ottawa, are ourselves Hagars under a bush. People come to this “poustinia in the marketplace”* to talk about their deep and real needs, needs we are entirely powerless to meet on our own.
Yet here in the desert of the poustinia, God himself provides for us and for his people.
As I hope this example of the developing story of Hagar and Ishmael makes clear, in the poustinia we are truly sustained not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Dt 8:3, Mt 4:4).
* Poustinia, the Russian word for "desert," is also used to describe a desert spirituality of prayer, silence, solitude, and fasting. MH Ottawa lives this life in a big city while being available to all who come to them.
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