I confess that I have never been to a real desert. I have an idea of what they are like, from biblical stories and from natural history documentaries on TV. However I suspect I greatly underestimate the rawness of such climates. Even desert excursions promoted in travel magazines are controlled experiences of a wilderness.
In a way that is perfectly understandable. We shy away from hostile locations; humans are not suited to the conditions a desert confronts us with. That is why we try our hardest to tame our wildernesses, to build civilisations which eradicate such dangerous habitats.
So it is interesting how God often allows deserts to be the setting where he deals with the human heart. Could it be that is because the desert landscape is an analogy of the soul? There is beauty and barrenness, freedom and ferocity in both. The desert is a spiritual opportunity, one which many saints from the past felt drawn to, to meet with God.
These last few months I have sensed the need to withdraw from some things to turn my focus deliberately towards God, on what he would want to show me and say to me.
What am I discovering about the desert as a context for spiritual development?
A desert is a place away from the world, a setting of solitude. Being alone can be a luxury in a busy life, but I tend to enjoy space for leisure and time out. That is different from moving away from people and things so that God can have my full attention.
A desert is a harsher environment, where external comforts are taken away. I surround myself with things that cushion me in my daily life. Remove food, home comforts, entertainment – in short my lifestyle crutches – for just a few hours, and I can quickly feel disoriented and wary.
A desert is a place of silence. I like quietness, but quickly realise that I become uncomfortable with prolonged silence, for what it exposes in me. There is interior noise, subtle temptations, profound restlessness that I am forced to deal with in the presence of God.
A desert is an arena where weaknesses are exposed, tested and overcome. Deep spiritual realities such as fear, anger, fantasy, impure motives, judgment and despair – all these I encounter when I journey through wilderness terrain in the gentle companionship of the Spirit. I need to encounter them in order to let my heart be transformed.
A desert is a space for prayer and reorientation. I increasingly find myself trying to carve out time to seek the Lord away from everything that cries out for my attention. Like characters from the bible, I long for thin places where I connect easily with God and let him define my identity and priorities.
A desert is a setting where prophets are formed and voices are found. I trained for the ordained ministry in a seminary in which ‘spiritual formation’ was the stated aim. These days I think that desert might be a more authentic place where God can call, encounter and send his people. I am not sure how much I have to say of spiritual weight. Yet, if I stay in the desert, I might find a clearer voice and have words of greater value to share in my world.
It was said of Jesus that he ‘often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Luke 5v16). So maybe we should not try to tame our wilderness quite so much. Perhaps there is value in journeying into desert places, physically and spiritually, to be with God and to find our hearts being transformed.
More on desert musings again soon….God bless.