O God, my God, early at dawn I rise to you. My soul thirsts for you; my flesh longs for you in a land that is barren, untrodden and unwatered. Psalm 62 (63).
The Desert. Death Valley. No man’s land. The nihilistic plain. You walk into the desert and you die. Or you survive. It is a place of transformation. You come face to face with God in the desert. And the Devil.
The period of Great Lent is like waling into the desert. The desert trope has had a long history in the Orthodox tradition—both physically with the establishment of the first monastic communities (Nitria, Sinai, Jericho, Kellia, Scetis) and symbolically.
The experience of the desert, not just as a metaphor, but a real physical entity leaves anyone transformed. It is a place that invokes fear and awe. In my life I have been honored with translating the Judean Desert and the desert of Sinai. Rolling rocky hills reveal a desolate landscape, but at the same time unveil the utter stark elemental power of the most essential stuff of earth—sun, rock, sky. In the desert you notice things you had not seen before—the subtle changes of the red orange glow at sunset; the scuttle of scorpion; the shadow behind the stone.
The Desert is a paradox of undulating proportions. It is only in the silence that you can hear the voice of God. It is only in the nothingness that you can be creative. It is in the barrenness, in the stark deprivation that you will find what is necessary to sustain your soul. In your nakedness, you will cloth yourself. It is only when you stand still that you realize where you are traveling to.
I think of St Mary of Egypt who walked into the desert a sinner. I see her naked, emaciated, brown form wandering through the dust clouds and heat waves of infinite dunes. In the desert she became a saint. She completely metamorphosed into a thing of psychic beauty.
Our post-modern world full of digital bombardment and information overload has made it impossible for us to know our souls. Always active, always reacting to one visual or auditory stimulus after another, we never have the chance to sit still. We are so mortified of doing “nothing” we go out of our way to fill every moment to distraction. Why are we so afraid of just being? Because only when you sit still can you feel the profound sadness, the angst that makes up your existence. Only in stillness and silence do you hear the demons in your soul; they rise up to wage battle with you. And that is scary. Lets not romanticize these desert places, these desert moments. In the desert you are stripped naked and you are vulnerable. You are more susceptible to pain. No one wants to go there.
I am going through a desert this Great Lent. In His wisdom, the Lord has stripped me of almost all the relationships that have sustained me. I have no friends; my marriage is in shambles; my teenaged daughter not only refuses to have a relationship with me, but scorns and abuses me; my spiritual father does not talk to me; my aging mother is becoming senile; my stepson is in jail. Those people I thought were friends have shown a new face (or is it that the mask has come off?) I am utterly alone. But this is perhaps the path I must walk in order to truly know God’s will for me. I trust that this is all for my enlightenment. It is vainglory that makes us put our trust in fallible human beings. There is no help: sooner or later those closest to you, those who you regarded with esteem will let you down. No human is without error or folly. Do not put your trust in princes or in chariots, or in friends or husbands or children, not even in your parish priest. Humans are bound to fail you; they are human after all. Only in God can you trust. He is the source of your sustenance in a place “barren and untrodden and unwatered.” As women who put so much stake in “Relationship.” This is understandable as we are ‘relational beings’ We garner our sense of identity through our relationships. Unraveling relationships is a hard lesson to learn. We are relationship junkies. We tend to every relationship except the two most fundamental: the relationship with ourselves and the relationship with God. It is dangerous to make idols of our relationships—our children, our spouses, our bosses, our friends. They too can become distractions.
For the stubborn soul to change, it has to go through the ringer, an experience of such force that elemental change can take place. It is the desert that provides this again. Only when you are brought to such extremes, at the point of life or death, can the soul truly call out to God for help. It is from the desert that a fountain of prayer sprouts. At the breaking point, you call out to God in humility because you have finally let go of your pride.
I think of Odysseus. Tempest-tossed and exhausted, only when he calls out from the depths of the waves to Poseidon and realizes that he is just a man like everyone else that he is finally saved. It took him ten long years to humble himself. The Desert is the operating table from which pride is extracted. But as anyone who has gone under the knife will tell you, it is very painful.
It is this symbolic significance of the desert that has deeper meaning. I end with an excerpt that came my way, like a crumb in the desert, from a Church bulletin by the Very Reverend Archimandrite Vailios Bassakyros of St. John the Baptist Church of Gramercy Park. He writes: “During Great Lent we experience, if we allow ourselves to, the wealth that the desert has to offer. In this wasteland we grow not only spiritually, but also physically. How can this be you ask, since the desert is a barren place where little or nothing survives? It is in this desert environment that we learn to see through, and cast off, all that we have accumulated, and accomplished in our lifetime. All those attachments weigh upon us, and as a result, they act as a curtain over the true eye of our soul. However, in the desert we are stripped of the fortress we built around ourselves so that we can survive any attack or hardship that confronts us in the world. As such, we are left naked to the physical elements, and we become more vulnerable emotionally and spiritually. Only then can we feel the cries and the longings of the soul for God. Just as our stomachs groan with each passing day during Great Lent from the food to which it has become accustomed, so too our souls have begun to feel again, and long for what it was created to feed upon, and savor, the Lord Himself.
We do not have to leave the city to experience what most people have found in the desert. We can search our entire life and never find the gift that awaits us from within. Searching for “the thing” that makes us happy, is only a temporary fix, and when we find it we think all will be well. On the contrary, it is through the emptiness and desolate landscape of the desert that we begin to find ourselves and there we become what God has created us to be in the beginning.”