- At the Desert Retreat House-
Yesterday I was once again reminded of how harsh the desert climate is especially in these summertime months. An older couple visiting here from Scotland had made the very bad decision to embark on a rather lengthy hike into the wilderness during the heat of a triple-digit day, and to make matters worse they didn’t take enough water along with them. They had been hiking over a rigorous trail for about 3 hours when they were overcome by the heat and unfortunately the wife died on the trail. The desert is a harsh place to be - especially in these summer months.
Ever since moving out here to our “Desert Retreat House,” I have had many friends ask why on earth we would ever choose to live in such a desolate place - at least why not “get out of town” for the summer?
In fact, many people do go away for the summer months. After all, the summertime is more like our wintertime out here. The tourist season is over, the festivals are finished (you can get a really good deal on a hotel). And yet, many if not most of us year-long residents choose to remain here to enjoy the silence of the summer. A lot of people, like me, actually think that this is perhaps the very best time of the year.
It’s true that there are no soothing beaches for lounging in the sun or green forests with lush meadows for afternoon strolls. In fact the daytime temperatures make it virtually impossible to even go outside during the afternoon hours when the stark desert terrain seems even drier than ever.
But as I think about it, this silent emptiness and utter starkness is precisely why the desert is such a powerful place to live, such an abundant source of spiritual vitality - and maybe that’s why most of us “desert rats” continue on here over the summer.
When you are able to endure the trials the desert has to offer for everyday living, embracing the silence of the wilderness, the harsh baking sun and the stark emptiness, you develop a sense of “resilience.” You learn a life-lesson that you can survive whatever comes along and, in fact, you can even thrive in the emptiest of places.
It seems to me that “resilience” is perhaps the great spiritual gift I have received by living in the wilderness. In the midst of the great emptiness I have learned to discover abundance, in the places where it seems that I am most alone I have experienced a powerful truth that I am never abandoned. There is a Holy Presence that never lets me go.
I used to read about “desert spirituality” when we lived back East (or even when we lived in Los Angeles), but I never understood what this meant until we moved out here. A “desert spirituality” is a wisdom that emerges out of living in a hot, often-uncomfortable, empty place – paradoxically a desert spirituality is essentially a “wintery spiritualty:”
The desert reminds people of things they would rather forget,
taking them to the edges.
The desert has nothing to do with comfort.
It is a place of ‘wintery spirituality’ with its shrill cry of absence,
contrasting with a ‘summery spirituality’
of easy exuberance and glib certainty of the divine presence.
The desert experience is a ‘wintery phenomenon’
more given to being emptied than filled – harsh and lean in its imagery.
Yet, no love is greater than desert love.
The more I think about it, living in a desert is probably way more iconic of routine, everyday life than living at a beautiful beach or in a lush green forest. For the most part life is a wilderness, life is difficult, life is a place where there aren’t a lot of glib easy answers, where we often feel more empty than full, where God often seems distant and where there is often way more doubt than certainty.
Plato once said;
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
I think there is great wisdom in this observation.
Everyone we meet is in the midst of the fray, struggling to make it though the wilderness; and yet the lesson we learn from our struggles is that we are not alone in it all- we have one another, and a Holy Presence abides. Even when we only feel absence, love abides, and:
No love is greater than desert love.