Braving the Wilderness
The late American director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston became part of my childhood. I would watch the film, especially around the Passover every year when it would always be shown on television. The movie is a very Hollywood-ized version of the biblical account, but nevertheless I’ve developed a fondness for the film as it did become part of my childhood growing up.
There’s a scene in the movie where the character of Moses played by Charton Heston is banished from Egypt and is exiled into the wilderness of Shur. Moses has to somehow traverse this hot, dry, arid and barren region with only one days ration of food and water. The odds were against him to brave the wilderness and make it through to the other side with seemingly no guarantee that he would survive that harsh, brutal and unforgiving environment. It has been described as the Crucible of God.
A crucible is a ceramic or metal container in which metals and other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. The word crucible has also been used to describe a severe test or trial in which different elements interact with each other leading to the creation of something new. It’s a transformative experience in which an individual is purified and refined by going through extremely challenging circumstances, and as a result undergoes a metaphorical painful death and rebirth.
As Moses begins this difficult and painful journey into the unknown, director Cecil B. DeMille’s voice begins a dramatic monologue that I feel perfectly captures and describes this Crucible of God:
“Into the blistering wilderness, the man who walked with kings now walks alone. Torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and earthly wealth, a forsaken man without a country and without a hope, his soul in turmoil. Like the hot winds and raging sands that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip, he is driven forward, always forward, by a God unknown for a land unseen into the molten wilderness, where granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way.
Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness. In the mocking whisper of the wind, he hears the echoing voices of the dark. His tortured mind wonders if they call the memory of past triumphs or wail forebodings of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, or shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation.
He can neither bless nor curse the Power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose. Until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker’s Hand.”
Many of us can relate to the traumatic ordeal that Moses went through. You may be going through the dark night of the soul, an existential crisis that was triggered by some devastating blow in your life such as the end of a cherished relationship, the passing away of someone you love, the loss of a meaningful job or career, a frightening health diagnosis, insurmountable financial hardship, overwhelming mental and emotional issues or some other painful ordeal in the form of a distressing situation that you have to endure which causes long-term chronic stress, and it feels as if you’re experiencing your own personal crucible.
Your love, hope, faith, optimism and patience are certainly put to the test. It’s an arduous journey that’s not for the faint of heart as it takes a great deal of courage, strength and fortitude just to keep moving forward in the face of adversity. Some of these tribulations can last for weeks, months or even years. The trials and sufferings can seem endless, and at times you may not even be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re deep into this abyss of darkness. You can feel trapped with no way out.
There cannot be a resurrection without a crucifixion. Crucifixions aren’t pleasant. They can be excruciating. The snake that cannot shed its skin must perish. Moses had to die to the old version of himself so he could give birth to the new version of himself. He was able to survive the tribulation of his dark night of the soul by braving the wilderness and come out the other side of this painful transformation where Moses died to his old life and with labor pains was birthed into his new life, and he was now ready to realize his calling. In his affliction he was being prepared by the Divine for his new life in order for him to do God’s work, and fulfill his life purpose and soul mission.
Just like the metal in the crucible that’s subjected to extreme temperatures in order to remove any impurities. Moses' ordeal was an extreme kind of purging where he was being refined and purified so that he could be ready to become the person he would need to be in order for him to fulfill the divine assignment of his higher calling which was revealed later to be to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and eventually lead them to the Promised Land.
The artwork that I’ve created is from the scene in the movie The Ten Commandments where Moses begins his trek through the wilderness. The moon in the background is not part of the scene in the movie. It’s something that I’ve added to the artwork, because in spirituality the moon represents divinity and is associated with spiritual enlightenment and the illumination of the unconscious in the subconscious mind.
At night, the moon shines down and illuminates the dark. The moon in the background of the artwork represents the Divine who always accompanies Moses on his journey into the darkness of the unknown. She never leaves his side and attentively watches over him overseeing his trial. In his darkness she illuminates his path allowing him to keep moving forward toward his destiny.
In addition to the moon, I’ve also added the caterpillar crawling uphill across the hot and dry desert sand. The symbolism of the caterpillar projecting its own shadow in the form of a butterfly is because becoming a butterfly is its destiny. It’s the final stage in the transformation process. So the caterpillar projecting the shadow of a butterfly “foreshadows” the inevitable end result.
The caterpillar doesn’t become a butterfly overnight. It must go through a process of death and rebirth. For the caterpillar, it can seem like the end of the world. But it’s actually the beginning of a new life. The difficult metamorphosis that a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly has often been used to describe the painful transformation process that many of us experience on the spiritual awakening journey.
“Just when the caterpillar thought
the world was over,
it became a beautiful butterfly.” -Proverb
While a butterfly's transformation looks amazing from an external point of view, but internally it's actually a gruesome process deep within the chrysalis. In order for a caterpillar to transform into a butterfly it has to digest itself using enzymes triggered by hormones that literally causes the caterpillar to breakdown and dissolve into a chaotic molecular mess before the transformation can truly begin. Then sleeping cells, which are similar to stem cells grow into the body parts of a completely new creation of the future butterfly.
But the process isn't over, yet. The soft, tender and pliable butterfly still has to exit the hard, protective layer of the chrysalis. The butterfly now has to struggle its way against the hardened shell of the chrysalis. This fight for its freedom is a crucial phase in its development, because it’s in the butterfly’s wrestling for its own liberation that it’s strengthening its wings and developing the will to live for the rest of its life.
In the artwork, the caterpillar crawling uphill is symbolic of the uphill battle it experiences in its transformation process. Without that important struggle, the butterfly wouldn’t be able to develop the strength it needs in order to survive and thrive in the world.
"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly,
but rarely admit the changes it has gone through
to achieve that beauty." -Maya Angelou
Right now you may feel trapped like the caterpillar in the darkness of the chrysalis and you may feel like Moses as if you’re braving your own wilderness, that time in your life where you’re going through some agonizing situation. You may feel disillusioned of the dissolution of your life.
According to the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, the wilderness is the hero’s journey. It’s a rite of passage that everyone must undergo in life. If you find yourself in such a dire predicament, just know that everything happens for a reason. There’s a reason why you’re going through this. You wouldn’t be going through this if you weren’t ready for it.
“The struggle you’re in today is developing