The 3 photographs below were taken in May 2008 during a visit to friends, working in that region.

Deserts feature with uneasy regularity and profound significance in biblical and church history.

Considered an ultimate arena for testing human character, deserts also provide the context for incredible, revelatory encounters between God and men…for instance: Moses, Jesus, Saul of Tarsus, to name but three, spent considerable periods of time in ‘howling wilderness wastes’.

Small wonder that the desert became a constant theme of Christian spirituality – as, for example, in the days of the Desert Fathers, who believed the desert to be supremely valuable to God, precisely because it was valueless to man. Thomas Merton elaborates, pointing out that the desert is ‘where the comfort of man is absent, where the secure routines of man’s city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God…’  and where we may ‘explore the inner waste’ of our own being.

Rene Voillaume describes the desert experience as that of ‘helplessness leading to reliance on God alone’ …. he continues eloquently: ‘The desert bears in its physical reality the sign of isolation not only from people…but from any semblance of man’s presence and activity….something that man cannot put to use,  it likewise bears the sign of aridity, and consequently of the subduing of the senses…it also bears the sign of poverty, austerity and of the most extreme simplicity. In short…of man’s complete helplessness,  as he can do nothing to subsist by himself…he thus discovers his weakness and the necessity of seeking help and strength in God’.

Deserts came to be regarded as necessary places of ‘solitude’, in which purification,  self-knowledge/control, conflict and victory could be achieved. It’s there that self is confronted,  inner discipline is formed, discernment is acquired, and as Kenneth Leech observes, ‘out of the struggle of the desert comes the full-grown spiritual man.’

As an analogy of the spiritual life, today, the image of the desert is still very potent. Perhaps we need to re-invent our attitude towards the desert experience, seeing it as an opportunity for spiritual growth, rather than an evidence of God’s displeasure, as a consequence of ‘missing God’s plan’ (an idea far too common in church circles – which comes from a negative pre-occupation with Israel’s miserable failures, and resultant 40-yrs of desert wandering)

If right now you find yourself in a ‘howling wilderness’, I hope you will take heart. This is not an uncommon place along the journey of faith, and will result in a greater knowledge of yourself, and more importantly, of God and His amazing sustaining grace.

I conclude with a touch of culture – lines written by Mechthild of Magdeberg (1207-94) entitled:

 

The desert has many teachings


In the desert,

Turn toward emptiness,

Fleeing the self.

~~~

Stand alone,

Ask no one’s help,

And your being will quiet,

Free from the bondage of things.

~~~

Those who cling to the world,

Endeavour to free them(selves);

Those who are free, praise.

~~~~~


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