Desert teachings

The desert keeps crossing my path. My brother sends me fascinating photos from his desert hiking in Utah. I read a book (Belden C. Lane: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes) on how the scarcity and harshness of desert shaped the monastic fathers and mothers in early Christianity and what it can teach our own faith journeys. I watched a movie about Georgia O’Keeffe which reminded me of my own brief foray into the desert of New Mexico. And I have been thinking and reading a lot about Moses and his leadership as he struggled to lead a group of people through a desert. Like the Sahara desert that keeps encroaching on surrounding territory, thoughts of desert keep stepping into mine.

I have no plans to visit a desert any time soon, but I am curious about what a stint of living in the desert would teach me. How would it be different from how the sabbatical walk shaped me two years ago? Then I walked along rivers, dealt with floods and mud, pounding thunderstorms, and an abundance of water. Life–plant and animal– was plentiful, abundant and magnificent. The sound of the wind was always accompanied by the swish of leaves, grasses, and bending branches. The sky was not big and bare, but always partially hidden by the thick woods, revealed only in pieces. The road was always clear and marked: I didn’t always know what was around the next corner, but I could not get lost.

What did I learn in the river land? The richness of God. The gift of playfulness. Travel lightly. Walk beside the Lord and listen. Welcome strangers. Take one’s time. That there is a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The river walk shaped my faith, hence the name of this blog.

Still, those who have been in the desert have learned some things I need to know. As Belden C. Lane put it in the most recent issue of Christian Century (May 18, 2010), the early desert monks “learned the scarcity of water, a simplicity of diet and an enduring hunger for relationships.” With the desert harshness and indifference they learned not to care or depend upon the approval and recognition of others. They also found much to love. They came to value the true self–their own and that of others–without working at making an impression, but freed in humility to love fiercely.

It seems, now that I think about it, that the desert and God taught Moses much of the same things. Maybe in order to counter the abundance of water…

…I need a good long walk in the desert.


  1. I enjoyed seeing that recent article by Belden Lane, and thoroughly enjoyed his “Solace of Fierce Landscapes”. I am always living in the tension of being at home (surely, too much at home) with comfort and abundance, ample water, green rolling landscape–and at the same time longing for the fierce honesty of desert places.

  2. Fierce honesty is a good way of putting it.

  3. Interesting to read a bit about the origins of your blog name.

    As for the desert, to paraphrase an old saying, “even if we don’t go to the desert, the desert comes to us.” And when it does, it’s seldom a desired experience which certainly draws on a “ruthless trust” as Brennan Manning put it.


  4. I’ll have to look up Brennan Manning.