Saturday, August 1, 2015

Desert Wisdom

"A Way in the Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Each day as I wake up and look out into the desert region around my house, I am inevitably reminded of the wilderness areas of Israel and the Middle East- those places out of which the various Sacred Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam first originated. The desert around my house looks very much like some of these areas.

When I look out at the desert I am also reminded of how ironic it is that so many people look to these holy scriptures to find clear-cut answers about life- answers about the nature of humanity, moreover answers about the nature of “God.”

I say it is ironic to look at the wisdom of “desert books” for easy answers because, anyone who lives in a desert knows that the wilderness is never a place for clear-cut answers, clearly-marked highways, defined borders. In fact, a desert is a place that raises  more questions than it does answers; and yet, paradoxically, the desert is also a place for experiencing deep wisdom and enduring truth.

The desert is a “fierce” place that offers deep solace – so it is with life.

Just a short walk from the front door of my house there are trails that lead out into the middle of a vast untamed wilderness sanctuary- a place of utter silence and unmarked paths where it is easy to get disoriented, a place where one dares not walk alone, where you need a companion or a guide and a good compass to help point the way.

The desert is a place that is bone-dry and intolerably hot especially in the summer months, and yet is a place of such profound beauty so as to be breathtaking at times. Wildflowers bloom in the springtime, palm trees spring up everywhere to protect from the noonday heat, the desert night skies are almost blinding in their brightness, the silence of the wilderness is so profound that it literally thunders in your ears, and underneath all that dry desert sand flow streams of underground water for plants to flourish and creatures to drink – the desert is a fierce place of deep solace.

The desert is a place that yields great wisdom. It teaches something about the very nature of life - a lesson for us all, whoever we may be, whatever path we are on in life.  Each and every one of us lives in a vast wilderness where there are no clear-cut answers, no one-way, only-way paths. And yet “Desert Wisdom” teaches that we need not wander aimlessly and we dare not wander alone. We have one another to guide us and a compass points a life direction: treat one another with kindness and compassion and you will find your way in the wilderness.

Ultimately “Desert Wisdom” teaches us something about the very nature of “God.”  It is a place to encounter transcendence (that’s probably why so many “holy books” have come out of desert places). The desert teaches that, even in the driest places there are refreshing streams, in the greatest emptiness there is abundant presence, in the most profound silence one can hear the thundering voice of the holy “One” in whom everything and everyone lives and moves and has being —abiding with us through it all, always with us along the way.

In the book, The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystic said this:

God is a desert to be entered and loved,
never an object to be grasped or understood.

The author of this book obviously knew something about Desert Wisdom.

Saint John of the Cross, another spiritual “mystic” who lived back in the 16th century also knew something about Desert Wisdom when he said:

We are never more in danger of stumbling
than when we are sure we know where we are going.

The desert is a fierce place offering no clear-cut answers and yet it is a place of profound solace, deep truth and enduring comfort- so it is with life.


  1. I'm so jealous of your residential habitat :) I became aware of the Desert's spirituality the first time I drove through Arizona and then on subsequent visits to New Mexico and Southern California. Unbelievably moving and mesmerizing, even surreal. Thanks for the reflection.


  2. Beautiful area you describe, that for me would be such a blessing to visit. To allow the heart and mind, peace and solitude, on an earthly desert, with the intention of seeking Holy wisdom is something I can only imagine, and ponder its magnitude. I have found much solace in the material of St. John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila. Thank you for sharing!

    1. The desert is a perfect place to read John and Teresa