It’s been several weeks since I last posted, mainly because of my annual foray into the wilds of southwestern Colorado along the banks of a flat water stretch of river, seeking God amidst the killer blood-sucking gnats, 100+ degree temps, and frequent coal trains driven by jokers who love to blast their horns in the middle of the night whenever they see tents pitched on the opposite bank.
Ah, the desert. Destination of exiles, seekers, and prophets from the earliest recollections of the Judeo-Christian faith. Where did Hagar end up after Ishmael pissed off Sarah? The Desert of Beersheba. Where did the nation of Israel tool around for forty years after ditching the Egyptians? The Desert of Sinai. Where did David run off to when Saul lost his mind? The Desert of Maon. Where did Elijah go after he wasted all the prophets of Baal and irked Israel’s most notorious ruling family? Taking a cue from Hagar, he went to the Desert of Beersheba. And so forth.
But the desert isn’t just a place of sanctuary for people out of favor. Moses saw the burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. John the Baptist ran around in the desert eating locusts and wild honey and Jesus and the devil had it out in the desert; actually, the text in these two accounts says the events happened “in the wilderness,” but we are talking about Palestine here. It’s not like John suddenly took up residence in the jungle or Jesus wandered out onto an iceberg. And Luke 5:16 tells us, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” Seeing as how people in first century Palestine generally crowded around wells, rivers, lakeshores, and springs, it stands to reason that the “lonely places,” being deserted, were probably deserts, too.
Which brings me to last weekend.
On Friday, I hiked a couple of lonely trails in Colorado National Monument. On Saturday and Sunday, friends and I canoed a very hot stretch of the Colorado River through sandstone and granite canyons. It was 110 degrees in the shade all three days. In heat like that, life boils down (no pun intended) to bare essentials. The barest being water.
I’ve heard it said that the two greatest threats to human life in the desert are thirst and drowning.[i] That means that the greatest helps to human life in the desert are plenty of water to drink and plenty of time in the water with your head safely on the sunny side of the surface. My friends and I downed close to a gallon of water each day and spent a lot of time bobbing in the river like corks, quite apart from our canoes, relying on the mild river water to help maintain our core temperatures.
With that essential need met, the next essential is food, of which we had no shortage thanks to Centennial Canoe Outfitters, a company that knows how to bring a touch of class to the backcountry. Well-fed and thoroughly tuckered from heat and physical exertion, the third essential – sleep – was easy for all of us to achieve.
The great thing about an environment that reduces life to water, food, and sleep is that it frees up a tremendous amount of head space. Our culture is frantic, our lives are jumbled, and our attention is fractured all the time. Consequently, it’s no wonder that “finding God” can seem impossible in the midst of our regular lives, even on those rare occasions when it occurs to us that “finding God” might be a good exercise. The very idea of “finding God” points to just how complicated our lives are. God is ever-present, but we run in so many directions at once, no matter what we do, many of us feel disconnected and distant from the very river of life that Jesus promised was ours for the taking:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ (John 7:37-38)
Deserts clear up the clutter and the chatter. Rather than desolation, I see deserts as remarkably clean and simple environments. Not ecologically speaking – deserts are enormously complex ecosystems where stability meets fragility – but spiritually. The predominant brown and grey hues of desert minerals, small and tenacious desert plant life, and the quietness and elusiveness of desert wildlife soothe my mind and soften my heart. The solitude that is easily tapped in the desert opens me up to hearing the voice of God. That voice, that relationship, is the living water that people of all faiths shoot for, which may be why mystics and madmen since time immemorial have always sought out the world’s “lonely places” to attend to the still small voice of God.
[i] Drowning by flash flood, that is. Rains pouring several miles upriver often send dramatic flash floods downriver. Here are two photos of the same spot in the desert (from slightly different angles), before and during a flash flood. Note that the sun is shining brightly – the rain storm happened somewhere else!
© Marian the Seminarian, 2012