For some reason, the desert has been a significant part of Judeo-Christian history (and probably the history of Islam, given its origins and where much of the Muslim population of the world still lives). The story of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land is a story of formation, where God uses the physical and spiritual challenges of the desert to form a peculiar people devoted to a new way of living in the world. You could even say that the desert is where God first formally introduces himself to the world, and introduces a people to the type of life he desires, in the form of the law. Israel has a really hard time with the desert, allowing it to affect their trust in the provision of YHWH. Hundreds of years later, Jesus goes to the desert for his own spiritual formation. John the Baptist also knew the importance of the desert, of the wilderness experience. There just is something unique about the harshness of the desert, its seemingly vast emptiness that allows for the presence of God to be seen that much more clearly.
Later Christians took to the desert when the church had forgotten itself, and that’s where we get the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the people who had one purpose (monastics): to live with and know God alone. The desert wasn’t easy for them either, yet they went in droves to seek God in a seemingly forgotten part of the Empire.
Since reading some of the accounts of ancient Christians and more recent Christians who point to the desert as a special place to know God more fully, I’ve desired to come to the desert as part of my own spiritual formation. My own experience has been a lot like what I’ve read. Though I’m living in a city, I’ve gotten several chances to spend in wildnerness, just wandering and reflecting and being open to God’s revelation. Prior to this, when I thought of desert, I thought of places like this:
The expansive void of desert places like this really does make you aware of the smallest details–plants and flowers, animals and insects all seem to stick out and are important. Miles of similar landscape and color help to raise one’s awareness of God because there is just so little else. This kind of desert exists in many places in the world, I’m sure, but the desert encounter I’ve had here has been quite different. My desert experience in New Mexico has been more like this:
The New Mexico desert, at least the part that I’ve seen, has just been overwhelmingly beautiful. God is so clearly present not because of the void of life and beauty, but because of the abundance of it. The removal of the distractions of life, of cars and computers and work and so much else is the attraction here. There is mystery, the unknown in the desert. And God, known or unknown, is. I’m intrigued by the mystery of the desert, the expanse of earth that can be so hot and oppressive, such a place of misery, also has the potential to be an experience of real life. The desert is a death experience. Its potential to kill life, to parch the throat and dry the soul up to the point of death, allows for a physical experience of death that translates straight to the spiritual experience of death. We must die, daily, to ourselves, and the desert has been a place for me to understand on a physical and spiritual level some of that death, while at the same time marveling at the mystery of life in the midst of death. To behold rocks that are millions of years old and recognize them as the careful brushstrokes of the master artist, to feel the rock call you upward, to journey up the rock and sit and listen to the breath of God pass over you, to understand real silence, which is not the lack of sound but the joyous noise of creation and the Creator, to feel both your own helplessness and your own connection to the creation; that is the irrestible draw of the desert.