A recent article in Discipleship Journal, titled “Drawn to the Desert,” caught my attention. Given the desert/wilderness theme that has been running through my head lately, the first line of this article had me hooked:
In my experience, when most Christians hear the words wilderness or desert in relation to their lives with God, thoughts of trials and testing come to mind.
What’s the purpose of desert/wilderness wandering? For Abraham it was the difficult path to discover his calling, for the Israelites it came as a consequence of their lack of faith, and for Jesus it allowed a time of testing. But for the Desert Fathers and Mothers; for the Monastics, going to the desert meant something different entirely.
In her article, Christy Tennant describes a time of spiritual desert in her life. “I felt empty, guilty, and hopeless in my attempts to be a living sacrifice…” In an attempt to reconnect with God and perhaps identify the source of her dry season, she set aside a morning to for solitude and prayer.
Tennant says that as she began reading she felt compelled to spend time in Song of Songs and to her surprise began to suspect that the purpose and cause of this season of desert was not the result of sin, or a period of trail to lead to greater growth and maturity – the Lord had called her to the desert to be alone with her.
He led me into the wilderness to clarify who I am in His eyes. He drew me to the desert so He could tell me how he feels about me. And he did.
The desert mystics retreated to this solitary – apparently barren – landscape and found instead the beautiful sound of silence, the lack of distractions, a chance to be alone with God.
Perhaps when we find ourselves in a desert season we should take time to speak with the Lord – even if it seems strange and foreign at first. Listen for stillness. It may be that the Lord wants to remind us that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. Maybe we’ve bought into the lie that we are filthy worms long enough and God wants to remind us that we were created in His image, that he chose us and called us. It could be that we’ve forgotten that Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants…I have called you friends.”
Then again, it may be that once we’ve waited out the wind, the earthquake and the fire the Lord will ask us, “What are you doing here?” And we’ll find ourselves being sent back to civilization, finally aware that we wandered out into the wilderness without being invited! But, hey…at least at that point you’ve been reassured of your mission.
Maybe we are called to the desert to learn how to pray in the first place. I don’t exactly come from a faith tradition that values hermits and monks living alone or in small cloisters in the desert. In fact more often than not monasteries are disdained as the ultimate symbol of selfishness and laziness. Over the past few years, I’ve come to a different understanding.
Many monasteries are open as a refuge to weary travelers. Many serve the poor. All are places of prayer. You see, here in America and in my faith tradition we apparently have a very limited view of what it means to serve and minister to others. We talk a lot about prayer and how powerful it is, how important and effective it is, how necessary a ministry…but someone dedicates their life to prayer and we call them selfish and uncommitted! So, do we think prayer is ministry or not?
Perhaps we are called to the desert to learn to do more than just talk to or at God, but rather to cultivate a listening heart that actually waits for a response. How often do we sit down to pray, through up a string of unending questions and requests and then when we finally have to stop talking long enough to take a breath, we look around and…Amen, peace I’m out.
We don’t have to be in solitude to pray, we don’t have to be in the desert to listen, but perhaps that’s a good place to learn. You don’t learn how to drive by getting into a car and immediately merging into rush hour traffic – but once you learn how to drive, you realize rush hour is just a really long parking lot, no big deal.
Maybe I’ve had way too small a view of the desert.