To the Edge of the Desert

Have you heard of this “desert” thing that some people write about in relation to faith and religion? I have read several authors of weblogs and books write about the “desert”. What do they mean by the “desert”?

I am not exactly sure, but it seems that many writers are making a Biblical reference. Jesus, after being baptized by John the Baptist, journeyed into the desert for forty days. While in the desert, He was alone, isolated, and tempted by Satan. Afterwards, Jesus began His ministry. For many, the desert becomes a place to test oneself in the harshest of environments, as if it symbolizes a method of purification.

Other writers are referring to the desert as a reference to the Desert Fathers. These were a group of Christian men (and some women), starting about the 6th century, who removed themselves from society and physically moved into the desert to find communion with God. Their isolation and detachment from society helped them to push their spirituality as far as possible. And when some of them reached a certain level, they returned to society to teach others about what they had learned.

Still other writers, it seems, refer to the desert in regards to their spirituality. They become lost or confused. Their old ideas about God do not seem to work anymore. Their stream of spirituality has dried up. Their path seems lost in the dust, their destination uncertain. No comfort can be found. They are restless. They are searching.

Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, describes this third type of desert:

The spirit enters a wilderness and travels blindly in directions that seem to lead away from vision, away from God, away from all fulfillment and joy. It may become almost impossible to believe that this road goes anywhere at all except to a desolation full of dry bones—the ruin of all our hopes and good intentions.

The prospect of this wilderness is something that so appalls most men that they refuse to enter upon its burning sands and travel among its rocks. They cannot believe that contemplation and sanctity are to be found in a desolation where there is not food and no shelter and no refreshment for their imagination and intellect and for the desires of their nature.

Convinced that perfection is to be measured by brilliant intuitions of God and fervent resolutions of a will on fire with love, persuaded that sanctity is a matter of sensible fervor and tangible results, they will have nothing to do with a contemplation that does not delight their reason and invest their minds and wills with consolations and sensible joy. They want to know where they are going and see what they are doing, and as soon as they enter into regions where their own activity becomes paralyzed and bears no visible fruit, they turn around and go back to the lush fields where they can be sure that they are doing something and getting somewhere.

Merton goes on and describes this desert in more detail as the “night of the senses”:

The mind finds itself entering uneasily into the shadows of a strange and silent night. The night is peaceful enough. But it is very frustrating. Thought becomes cramped and difficult. There is a peculiarly heavy sense of weariness and distaste for mental and spiritual activity. Yet at the same time the soul is haunted with a fear that this new impotence is a sin, or a sign of imperfection. It tries to force acts of thought and will. Sometimes it makes a mad effort to squeeze some feeling of fervor out of itself, which is, incidentally, the worst thing it could possibly do. All the pretty images and concepts of God that it once cherished have vanished or have turned into unpleasant and frightening distortions. God is nowhere to be found. The words of prayers return in a hollow echo from the walls of this dead cave.

If a man in this night lets his spirit get carried away with fear or impatience and anxiety, he will come to a standstill. He will twist and turn and torture himself with attempts to see some light and feel some warmth and recapture the old consolations that are beyond recovery. And finally he will run away from darkness, and do the best he can to dope himself with the first light that comes along.

But there are others who, no matter how much they suffer perplexity and uneasiness in the wilderness where God begins to lead them, still feel drawn farther and farther into the wasteland. They cannot think, they cannot meditate; their imagination tortures them with everything they do not want to see; their life of prayer is without light and without pleasure and without any feeling of devotion.

On the other hand they sense, by a kind of instinct, that peace lies in the heart of this darkness. Something prompts them to keep still, to trust in God, to be quiet and listen for His voice; to be patient and not to get excited. Soon they discover that all useless attempts to meditate only upset and disturb them; but at the same time, when they stay quiet in the muteness of naked truth, resting in a simple and open-eyed awareness, attentive to the darkness which baffles them, a subtle and indefinable peace begins to seep into their souls and occupies them with a deep and inexplicable satisfaction. This satisfaction is tenuous and dark. It cannot be grasped or identified. It slips out focus and gets away. Yet it is there.

I think I have been to the edge of this desert. I did not know it at the time, but I had many of these feelings Merton describes. I felt scared, uncertain, lost. I had run smack into a spiritual/faith problem. For about a week or so, prayer, reading scripture, and church all felt mechanical, routine, unfulfilling, hollow. The problem was mine, not God’s. God is God, and what I ever thought of Him was not going to change Him. I had to change. I had to work out my problem and my doubts, with God’s help of course. I did not know where I was going or what I was doing. I did not know how or what my faith was going to be like when I worked through this problem. The valley I was in was dark and cloudy. I could not see the top of the next hill which I had been traveling toward. All that I knew was that I had a faith and a trust in God. Where I was going, I did not know.

Looking back, I know that I was not ready to step onto the “burning sands” of this desert. I was frightened by what I saw, or rather, what I did not see. I was anxious, and so I twisted and turned to look “to see some light and feel some warmth and recapture the old consolations that [were] beyond recovery.” I wanted back in my comfort zone with God.

The lesson from the edge of the desert is that you can never go back to your old comfort zone. Your old ideas and concepts about God no longer work the way they used to. You must find something new. You have to create a new comfort zone. And that is where the searching in the desert comes in. The desert is a place where your concepts and images about God are destroyed, burned up, melted into something less tangible, less definable, less knowable. The mind does not like the unknowable. The mind sees the unknowable as a dark, misty cloud. And as Merton writes, that is where God is.